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Professor Lowe's observation balloons

ëBehind the Linesí

Don PfanzA weekly series, ëBehind the Lines.î An anecdotal narrative tells the in-depth story of the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburgóthe action, the major players, the behind-the-scenes intrigue and the effect on the town. Writing the series is Donald C. Pfanz, staff historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. A native of Gettysburg, Pa., Pfanz graduated from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg in 1980, then joined the National Park Service. He served at Petersburg National Battlefield and Fort Sumter National Monument before joining the Park Service here. He has written two books: ëAbraham Lincoln at City Pointí and ëRichard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life.í

Part 24 of a series on the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg. See previous stories.

THE CIVIL WAR has often been called the first modern American war. It featured the first successful submarine attack, the first battle between ironclad warships, and the first use of railroads for military purposes. It was also the first war that utilized aerial observation.

Military use of balloons was the inspiration of a New Hampshire aeronaut named Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe. Lowe became fascinated with aeronautics as a boy, and in 1858, at the age of 26, he constructed a balloon and made his first ascent. His feat fired the popular imagination, and for several months Lowe traveled throughout the country staging exhibitions.

Lowe's balloons were made of silk coated with a concoction of linseed oil. It took five seamstresses and 1,200 yards of silk to make the "envelope" that contained the 15,000 cubic feet of hydrogen necessary to lift the balloon. A mesh pouch made of rope encompassed the envelope and supported the basket, or gondola, below.

Lowe was a man with grand ideas, and it wasn't long before he determined to sail his balloon across the Atlantic Ocean. Equipment problems, however, thwarted his efforts (and probably saved his life), and he limited his flights to North America. His greatest journey occurred in April 1861, when he left Cincinnati, Ohio, and in just nine hours sailed 900 miles, to a point near Unionville, S. C.

The Civil War had begun just one week earlier with the bombardment of Fort Sumter, and when South Carolina farmers saw Lowe's balloon descending in their fields they suspected a Yankee trick. Lowe was arrested as a spy and taken to the state capital at Columbia. Officials questioned the errant aeronaut, determined that he was harmless, and ordered his release.

They might have done better to confine him for a while. No sooner was Lowe released than he proceeded to Washington

Over the next several months the professor conducted aerial observations throughout Northern Virginia. When Gen. George B. McClellan took the Army of the Potomac to Fort Monroe for the Peninsula Campaign in the spring of 1862, Lowe accompanied it there. (The Peninsula is the neck of land between the James and York Rivers, east of Richmond.) Throughout the campaign, Lowe provided McClellan with important information about the Confederate army.

Observation balloons, however, had their limitations. Before each ascent the envelopes had to be filled with hydrogen. This meant that the balloons could not travel far from a gas works. Lowe overcame this problem by creating a portable generator capable of producing hydrogen in the field. He designed the generator to fit in the back of a standard army wagon.

Other problems were not so easily overcome. First, there was the weather. Observation balloons could be used only on calm, clear days. Anything more than a gentle wind would buffet the balloon, driving it to the ground. Second was the problem of transmitting messages from the balloon to the ground. Lowe experimented with using a telegraph, but the tugging of the wires that connected his machine with one on the ground led to frequent malfunctions. Resorting to a more primitive approach, the professor simply wrote messages on a piece of paper, tied the paper to a rock and dropped it to the ground. This worked well if you could find the rock, but it was somewhat hazardous to those standing below.

A final problem involved gathering useful information. Lowe and his assistants knew a great deal about aeronautics, but they knew very little about military matters. Thus, their observations were of limited use. To make the most of the balloons, trained military observers had go aloft. The task usually fell to generals and their staffs.

Fitz John Porter was one of the first and only Union generals to make an ascent. While on the Peninsula, Porter nearly lost his life when a cable snapped, causing his balloon to sail toward enemy lines. He tried to bring it back to earth by releasing some of the hydrogen. To reach the vent, however, he had to lean out of the gondola, and, in doing so, he nearly fell out. To make matters worse, Confederate artillery opened fire on the wayward craft. Although Porter survived the incident, it's doubtful whether he ever hazarded another ascent.

At the Battle of Fredericksburg, responsibility for making aerial observations fell to Lt. Col. William Teall, an officer on Gen. Edwin Sumner's staff. Sumner himself refused to go up, considering the trip a risk "greater than marching in front of the cannon's mouth." (He had undoubtedly heard about Porter's experience.) Lowe's balloon, Eagle, made four ascents during the battle, and Teall was on three of them.

At Fredericksburg, however, the balloon was of little value. On the first three ascents, it was too windy for Teall to make accurate observations. The fourth ascent was more profitable. By then the winds had died down, and the Eagle ascended 800 to 900 feet in the air, offering the staffer a breathtaking glimpse of the battlefield.

"A view of the entire line of battle from the extreme right to the extreme left, say from 6 to 8 miles was spread out before me," he recalled. "The scene from this height & at this moment of the battle was magnificent beyond description. Language could not do it justice & any attempt to describe it would be useless & impotent in the extreme. It was a scene I never expect to live to see again. Surely no mortal every witnessed one so fearfully sublime." The Eagle returned to earth after just 25 minutes, and high winds grounded it for the next two days. By the time it was again able to ascend, the battle was over.

Six weeks after the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Army of the Potomac gained a new commander, Gen. Joseph Hooker. "Fighting Joe" apparently agreed with the army wag who commented that "observation on the moon would disclose as much as to the movements of the enemy" as Professor Lowe's balloons, "and would be of far more practical value." Upon taking command, Hooker cut Lowe's pay, reduced his staff, and did everything in his power to hinder his work. Lowe's patience snapped, and after the Battle of Chancellorsville he resigned his position in the army. With his departure, aerial observation by the Army of the Potomac came to an end.

NEXT: Lee directs the battle from Telegraph Hill

DONALD C. PFANZ is staff historian with Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. He is author of "Abraham Lincoln at City Point" and "Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life."