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Lowe, Balloons and the Civil War

In 1857, Lowe built his first airship, with his wife Leontine’s help, from a set of plans in a book written by one of his contemporaries in the young field of aerostats or balloons. Leontine gazed up at her husband from the ground as he made his first ascent 500 feet in the air, while communicating down to her via megaphone. Lowe funded the construction of his next and larger balloon by giving $1 and $5 tethered balloon rides to spectators at his exhibitions.

Lowe became convinced from his trial ascents and experiments that the sky holds consistent currents of air which could be relied upon for east-west travel. He believed these currents could carry him across the Atlantic Ocean in a few days rather than the two weeks it took to cross by ships. He and his rival balloonists were racing against time because a man named Cyrus Field was leading a team to put a telegraph cable across the same Atlantic. Lowe knew that if the cable were laid, making instant communication with Europe via telegraph possible, much of the fanfare would fade from a multi-day balloon crossing. In 1858, his fears came true as the cable connection was completed from Newfoundland to Ireland – but it only stayed watertight for three weeks before failing. Thus, Lowe had his chance at fame resurrected for him.

By this time Lowe’s reputation was such that Queen Victoria asked him to demonstrate his aerostat’s capabilities in Ottawa. He triumphed in front of dignitaries and was proclaimed to be “the first aeronaut.” He used a barometer to determine his height while aloft and studied the skies to confirm the “rivers of air” he believed existed above him. He corresponded with and regularly sent data to the Smithsonian, and urged the formation of a federal forecasting group which eventually became what we know today as the National Weather Service. Meanwhile, he experimented with different sealants used on balloon fabric. His adhesives made the balloons so airtight he could now keep one aloft for two weeks, a great improvement in the balloon industry. Lowe helped that industry grow when he opened his own factory, building balloons for customers across the United States. He used some of his profits from the factory to build the largest balloon he had ever attempted to construct. And it needed to be big, because he intended to fly it across the Atlantic Ocean in the following year, 1859.

By 1859, Lowe had risen to the top of an elite group of aeronauts, all pushing the envelope of what lighter-than-air ships were capable of. Lowe named his giant new balloon “The City of New York” as he planned to fly from New York to Europe on a river of air thousands of feet in the air. He designed a lifeboat which he suspended from beneath the balloon to be used for storage and in case of emergency. He named the covered 30-by-7 foot lifeboat after Leontine. It was featured in Scientific American magazine due to its innovative propeller, which was designed to control the balloon, not the lifeboat it was attached to. After selecting a site in Manhattan, Lowe contracted with the Manhattan Gas Company for the tremendous volume of “coal gas” needed to inflate his aerostat. He checked and received confirmation from the gas company that the amount he needed was well within their abilities to supply. But when the day in October came and the balloon would not inflate, it was discovered that the gas company‘s calculations were in error, and much more gas was needed than they were capable of providing. The Franklin Institute of Scientists in Philadelphia came to the rescue, telling Lowe if he brought the balloon to them, they could guarantee inflation. So Thaddeus set off with Leontine for Philadelphia and another chance.

In April of 1860, Lowe inflated and tried to launch his balloon, newly named “Great Western” as he was now in Philadelphia and “City of New York” no longer made sense. He was delayed at launch by high winds and, after waiting a day, believed the winds had died enough to allow for his safe ascent. But he was wrong and before he could launch, the winds pick up in a violent gust and ripped apart a seam of the balloon, deflating it. He tried to repair the balloon with adhesive that night, but upon inflation the next morning, it failed again. A crestfallen Lowe had to go back and rebuild his balloon and delay his dream of transatlantic flight once again. Disappointed and almost out of money, the family’s misfortunes increased when they learned that Leontine’s father has been shot and killed in the streets of Paris by Royal sympathizers.
Two weeks later, John Brown captured the Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry with the intent of arming slaves for revolt and emancipation. The fort was retaken by Robert E Lee and Brown was hanged. Lowe was beginning to fear the coming conflict could prevent his long-delayed flight to France. He was urged by the Smithsonian to fly instead from Cincinnati to somewhere on the East Coast, a “transcontinental” flight of sorts before he attempted the Atlantic crossing. He agreed and set off for Cincinnati. By April, 1861, he was ready to fly from Cincinnati to New Jersey on a current of air in the sky.

Just seven days after the firing on Fort Sumter and the beginning of the Civil War, Thaddeus Lowe took his balloon aloft. He wanted to prove his theory that balloons were a valuable means of gathering information about the enemy’s position, artillery and movements from a safe distance, about a thousand feet above the battlefield. Lowe planned to launch his balloon on April 19, 1861 and fly from Cincinnati to New Jersey when he encountered stronger than expected winds. He was blown across enemy lines and finally landed in the town of Unionville in the middle of secessionist South Carolina. Frightened and angry townspeople took the Professor into custody and were parading him off to the jail when a woman in the crowd recognized him from newspaper accounts. After her convincing explanations, the crowd acquiesced and Professor Lowe and his balloon were transported back across the lines to the Union side. Years later, an aging Professor Lowe liked to say that due to this incident he was the “first prisoner of the Confederacy” in the Civil War.

Now that the Civil War had begun, Lowe wanted to emulate Napoleon’s use of air surveillance to assist the Union cause. Although the Army was not convinced of the value of the balloons and the information their pilots or “aeronauts” could relay in a timely fashion on a field of battle, Lowe set out to argue for the establishment of a balloon corps by going to Washington D.C. He planned to have a telegraph wire strung 500 feet below him to the ground in order to communicate with President Lincoln about what he could see. On June 17, 1861, he did just that, and Lincoln was so impressed with the implications of this feat that he ordered Lowe to work with the Army of the Potomac and assist the Union with his balloon ascents.

Lowe established what came to be known as “The Balloon Corps” of the United States Army. In September of 1861, Lowe performed his first ascents in order to direct canon fire on Confederate positions over Falls Church, Virginia. It was the first use of a balloon in U.S. military operations. Though the balloon corps was poorly understood and supported even less, Lowe worked tirelessly to get the fledgling corps off the ground. Lowe’s support crew often went for months without pay and some crew members were forced to resign. The Army underestimated the skills required to prepare for launch and to keep the balloon tethered and inflated while aloft, leading to risky work for the aeronauts, but overall, Lowe and his fellow aeronauts (six in all) were very successful, forcing their Confederate foes to waste precious ammunition by attempting to shoot down the balloon. Once they got up to 1,000 feet, they were safe from ground fire. While the basket Lowe rode in while observing the enemy was hit by rifle fire on more than one occasion, no balloon or aeronaut was ever struck by a Confederate musket ball. (Lowe’s granddaughter, Florence “Pancho” Barnes, called him the most shot-at man in the Civil War.)

By the time Professor Lowe left the Army and Balloon Corps, he had proven the tremendous value of aerial reconnaissance on the battlefield. He had also invented a mobile gas manufacturing machine that allowed for balloons to be inflated and deployed anywhere a wagon could haul them. He missed the battle of Bull Run in the summer of 1862 when he contracted malaria. He recovered and was back aloft in early 1863 but eventually left the Corps in frustration due to the lack of support received from a new and skeptical commander.