Thursday, August 20, 2009

Thaddeus S. Lowe War Balloons.

The idea of using air balloons in war was not a new idea, Benjamin Franklin had the idea of flying soldiers into battle by balloon. The French would have a Balloon Corp., in the French Revolution and even Denmark, Russia and Austria did their best to use this “New” idea for military gain. But it was Professor Thaddeus S. Lowe, who would give a successful demonstration on the usefulness of the balloon in April of 1861. Then On June 17, 1861, he give a demonstration to President Lincoln on the front yard of the White House. The next day the President ordered a forming of the Balloon Corps, and Lowe was to head it.

Note. All photo's can be enlarged by pushing on then, you can copy them if you like.

All his demonstration had been in town were gas was ready available, but in the field there was none and to ship gas from a town was to costly and dangers, so they had to rely on the Hot air balloons it soon became evident this was not the fuel to use. This back fall only fueled what most of the officers beliefs were, that this “New Balloon” was useless. They were right to some degree. The air balloon took more time to fuel then the gas balloons and had to be taken down and repacked then unpacked and refilled at the new site. All this took time which they would have little of and the fires they had to build to fuel them give their position away to the enemies artillery and rifle fire there had to be a batter way.

Professor Lowe being a chemist know there was a better way, and would take time off to work on the problem, when he came back he had invented a system to make hydrogen gas and it could be transported about any were in the field. There were those skeptics that said the system would be too costly and time consuming to operate. Mr. Lowe was able to show that they were very cost effective and would take less time to fill a balloon then it was thought possible. It was order that his system was to be built. He would call his invention the “Hydrogen Generator”, These generators were big boxes on a wagon frame which were filled with water and iron and when sulfuric-acid was pored into the mix hydrogen gas was created.

The picture on the left is of two of his generators you well note his name is on the front of the wagons.

Now I could go on about all his accomplishments he made to the war, but there are many other sites that state them and are very good. But these sites don’t tell of his problems or the adventures he had with the corps, like the time, “Well why don’t we let him tell it.”

It was in October of 1861, that I was ordered by General McClellan, to report to General Smith at Johnson's Mill, and I was to be there no later then Sunday night. Well we inflated the balloon the same evening and started at 9 p.m. Our progress was slow, the night being very dark, and we were constantly apprehensive of running the balloon against trees or other obstacles. After passing through Washington and Georgetown, crossing numerous flag ropes and telegraph wires stretched across the streets, we reached the road to the Chain Bridge. This was lined with trees and we were compelled to go across the fields, as the wind was too high to tow the balloon when elevated, and it soon became cloudy and so dark that it was with the utmost difficulty we advanced. At several points trees had to be felled to allow a passage for the balloon.

We arrived at the Chain Bridge about 3 o’clock the next (Sunday) morning, and found it filled with artillery and cavalry going to Virginia. In order to take the balloon over my men were obliged to mount the trestle-work and walk upon the stringers, only eighteen inches wide and nearly 100 feet above the bed of the river. Thus, with the balloon above their heads, myself in the car directing the management of the ropes, the men getting on and off the trestle-work, with a column of artillery moving below, and 100 feet still lower, the deep and strong current rushing over the rocks, while the sky was dark above, the scene was novel, exciting, and not a little dangerous.

At daybreak we arrived near Lewinsville, nearly exhausted by the excessive fatigue of the trip. Here a strong wind sprung up suddenly and I was obliged to lash the balloon with strong ropes to stumps in a field. In a few minutes the wind increased to a terrific gale, which continued for an hour, tearing up trees by the roots close to where the balloon was anchored. When the storm reached its height the cordage gave way and the balloon escaped. It ascended to a great height, and in less than an hour landed to the eastward on the coast of Delaware, a distance of about 100 miles, where I afterward obtained it.

It is to be noted that these gas balloons once inflated could stay aloft up to two months, then a new one would take it's place and the gas from one was put into the other. These balloons were only deflated when they had to travel a great distances, if the distances wasn't to great the balloon would be tethered and carried along like the balloons of the Macy's Thanksgiving parade.
One of the dangers of flying a balloon is that it was hard to tell a friend from a foe as was the case in July of 1861, “Well lets let him tell it.”

In this voyage I started soon after sunrise, while the atmosphere was clear, and sailed directly over the country occupied by the enemy, as the lower current was blowing toward the west. Having seen what I desired, I rose to the upper current and commenced moving toward the east again, until over the Potomac, when I commenced to descend, thinking that the under current would take me back far enough to land near Arlington House. When within a mile of the earth our troops commenced firing at the balloon, supposing it to belong to the rebels. I descended near enough to hear the whistling of the bullets and the shouts of the soldiers to 'show my colors."

As I had, unfortunately, no national flag with me, and knowing that if I attempted to effect a landing there my balloon-and very likely myself-would be riddled, I concluded to sail on and to risk descending outside of our lines. This I accomplished, and landed on Macon's plantation, five miles and a half from Alexandria and two miles and a half outside of our pickets. A detailed account of my escape would be interesting, but it is sufficient to say that I was kindly assisted in returning by the Thirty-first Regiment New York Volunteers, and brought back the balloon, though somewhat damaged, owing to my having been obliged to land among trees. The balloon was generally supposed to be one of the enemy's, and the authorities in Washington were telegraphed from Arlington to this effect.

Some of problems that arose for Mr. Lowe, was that the persons left in charge of the balloons were not always given proper instructions for the use of the balloon, as he states in this report.

In April of 1862, I had took the road to Yorktown, and at 6.30 I was surprised by the descent of a balloon very near me. On reaching the spot I found it to be the one I had left in charge of my assistant at Yorktown, and General Fitz John Porter the occupant. The gas had entirely escaped when the balloon reached the earth, from the fact that the general in his eagerness to come to the ground (on finding that the rope by which the balloon was let up had parted) had opened the value until all the gas had escaped, and as the balloon was constantly falling the silk was kept extended, and presented so large a surface to the atmosphere that it served the purpose of a parachute, and consequently the descent was not rapid enough to be dangerous.

I would here remark that a balloon suddenly relieved of its gas will always form a half shpere, provided it has a sufficient distance to fall in to condense a column of air under it. A thousand feet would, I presume, be sufficiently high to effect this and to make the descent in safety. On inquiring into the cause of the accident I found that Mr. Allen, the assistant in charge of the balloon, had used but one rope, as had used but one rope, as had been his idea of topical ascents, instead of three and sometimes four, as I always did, and that rope had been partially injured by acid which had accidentally got on it.


At the beginning of the war many of the officers thought little of this “New Balloon”, but by the end of the first year they were asking for more balloons to be built and stronger ones, they had found that these balloons could provide invaluable reconnaissance. These balloons could stay aloft a very long time night or day in summer and winter. However the reconnaissance was only as good as the weather would allow, there was the high winds, rain, foggy ground cover and a lot of other atmosphere conditions.

One reconnaissance method was to tether a balloon behind a steamer and pull the balloon up and drown the river for great distances, one of the steamers was called the “Balloon”.

Then there was one suggestion by a Colonel that a balloon could be tied to a train. The pilots ( Aeronauts ) could reach great heights from 1000 feet to almost 4000 feet. Now I know some are asking how did they communicate from such heights? Will when they were tethered to one place they would run telegraph wires from the balloon to the ground.

The need for a balloon was great and Mr. Lowe would have to mover at a moments notice, but that was a problem, for he had to rely on the army for transplantation and many times the wagons were being used for getting forage and provisions. Mr. Lowe was always having some kind of trouble. Some times he was the cause of the trouble himself.

When he first took on the corps he was to get paid $70, but said he would take $10, if he could be one of the Aeronauts. At first it went smoothly, but as he went up so much and spent all those hours watching the enemies movements he began to interrupt their movement and would only report what he thought was important. This was a mistake and in the end he was told he was to report all movements it was not up to him to decided what was important or not importation it was up to the general staff to decided that.

There was other trouble for Lowe’s Corps, besides all the rest, there were those who sympathize with the enemy and would do anything to help them get a head of their enemy like these four men.

*Thomas B. Giles was arrested October 21, 1861, at Laurel, Del., by order of the Secretary of state and confined in Fort McHenry and from there transferred to Fort Warren, Boston Harbor. Giles was charged with disloyalty and with three others taking and concealing a Government balloon, thereby thwarting the designs of the Government and its officers. An order was issued from the Department of State dated November 3, 1861, directing Colonel Dimick, commanding at Fort Warren, to release Giles on his taking the oath of allegiance. He was released November 4, 1861.

This man [Joseph Bacon] was arrested October 21, 1861, at Laurel, Del., by the order of the Secretary of State and confined in Fort McHenry and from thence transferred to Fort Warren, Boston Harbor. He was charged with disloyalty and with assisting three others in taking and concealing a Government ballooting the design of the Government and its officers. An order was used from the Department of State dated November 3, 1861, directing Colonel Dimick, commanding at Fort Warren, to release Bacon on his taking the oath of allegiance, &c. He was released November 4, 1861.

John S. Bacon, of Laurel, Del., was arrested by order of the Secretary of State on the 21st of October, 1861, by Major Andrews, of the Second Regiment Delaware Volunteers, charged with conspiring to secrete a balloon belonging to the Government with treasonable purpose and was confined at Fort McHenry. On the 29th of October, 1861, the said Bacon was released from confinement on taking the oath of allegiance by order of the Secretary of State.

*S. B. Frost .

*These three men were arrested on the charge of concealing a balloon belonging to the United States in Delaware. I think there was some doubt as to one of them and all have been sufficiently punished.

Professor Lowe was in many campaigns, one of them was the Peninsular, the following pictures shows Professor Lowe and his balloons at work in this campaign.

Here we see Professor Lowe helping gas one balloon near Gaines Mill, Virginia.

Here we see Professor Lowe getting ready to go aloft in the Intrepid at Fair Oaks, Virginia.

Here is the Intrepid being replenished with gas from the balloon Constitution at Fair Oaks Virginia, in 1862.

Here is some of the names of the Corps balloons.


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