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A House Divided
Posted at 10:22 AM ET, 06/11/2011

An inflated proposal: Thaddeus Lowe and the Civil War balloons


HANDOUT IMAGE: Thaddeus Lowe inflating his balloon Intrepid during the Battle of Fair Oaks, which took place on May 31 and June 1, 1862 in Virginia. (Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum) (Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum - COURTESY OF THE SMITHSONIAN NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM)
The famous aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe had grand designs for balloons as instruments of war. On June 11, 1861, he laid out his vision to President Lincoln.

These balloons, Lowe explained, could be used to direct artillery fire or conduct reconnaissance of enemy battle lines. This intrigued Lincoln, who had a lifelong fascination with technology and who personally held a patent for a device that would buoy vessels over sandbars. He believed technology could be used to the military’s advantage in the upcoming conflict. Maybe, just maybe, it would be the deciding factor.

Lowe’s proposal sounded interesting but the challenge wasn’t just going aloft and observing. Soldiers on the ground needed real-time information. Flags wouldn’t be feasible, especially over long distances or if visibility were poor. If Lowe could find a solution, he could test it, Lincoln said.

Well, Lowe had an idea. He would run a telegraph wire from a balloon’s gondola to a receiving station below. An aerial signal had never been sent before but it was worth a try.

Seven days later, Lowe went aloft, accompanied by a telegraph operator and the superintendent of the American Telegraph Co. A single wire tethered the balloon to the War Department building near the White House, where Lincoln stood on the second-floor balcony, watching.

After Lowe gained enough altitude he sent a telegraph:

“To the [sic] President United States… I have the pleasure of sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station”

Afterward, Lincoln recommended that Lowe talk to Gen. Winfield Scott, the general-in-chief of the Army, to set in motion an air corps.

That did not go well. The old general was reluctant to use the newfangled contraptions and delayed meeting with Lowe. Excuses poured in. He was occupied, couldn’t possibly meet with him. More than a month passed, during which the Union suffered an embarrassing defeat at Manassas.

A frustrated Lowe approached Lincoln, who upon hearing the complaint, took Lowe to the Army headquarters to see Scott. Lincoln was perturbed. Had the Army had a few balloons to survey the battlefield, Manassas might have turned out differently, he thought.

“General, this is my friend Professor Lowe, who is organizing an Aeronautic Corps for the Army, and is to be its chief,” Lincoln said. “I wish you…to give him all the necessary things to equip his branch of the service.”

By early August, Lowe was designing a balloon for the Army and the Aeronautic Corps would be one of the great surveillance successes of the war on either side.

By Timothy R. Smith  |  10:22 AM ET, 06/11/2011

 
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