War of the Aeronauts: The History of Ballooning in the Civil War

By Howey, Allan W. | Air & Space Power Journal, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

War of the Aeronauts: The History of Ballooning in the Civil War


Howey, Allan W., Air & Space Power Journal


War of the Aeronauts: The History of Ballooning in the Civil War by Charles M. Evans. Stackpole Books (http://www.stackpolebooks.com/ cgi-bin/StackpoleBooks.storefront), 5067 Ritter Road, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania 17055-6921, 2002, 368 pages, $27.95 (hardcover).

First-time author Charles M. Evans has written an excellent history of the birth of American airpower in War of the Aeronauts, which he began researching in graduate school. Evans provides an admirable overview of early ballooning and of the first US and Confederate air forces. Woven around the universal themes of personalities and resistance to change, the book devotes most of its text to balloonist Thaddeus Lowe and his exploits with the Union army of the Potomac.

Lowe was a ballooning pioneer, an innovator, and an excellent organizer, as well as a supreme egotist and self-promoter. On 17 June 1861, he brought a balloon to Pennsylvania Avenue, directly across from the White House, where he made an ascent and sent a telegram to President Lincoln from the balloon. Lincoln was impressed enough to invite Lowe to spend the night at the White House and personally took him to see Winfield Scott, general in chief of the Union army. Lincoln told a skeptical Scott, "This is my friend Professor Lowe, who is organizing an Aeronautics Corps for the Army, and is to be its Chief. I wish you would facilitate his work in every way" (pp. 86-87).

Lowe became a civilian "contractor" attached to the Bureau of Topographical Engineers (mapmakers). Insisting on being paid a colonel's salary, he proved very adept at organizing teams to inflate, transport, and operate his balloons. He also devised portable hydrogen-gas generators that combined sulfuric acid and iron shavings to produce combustible gas. Among other innovations, Lowe built an "aircraft carrier" from a 122-foot barge, a telegraph train to transmit messages from balloons to army field headquarters, and colored flares for signaling troop movements. His development and employment of an "oxyhydrogen" arc lamp made him the first person to use artificial light in combat operations, and he hired other "aeronauts" to expand his reconnaissance capability. Finally, Lowe understood the need to build sturdy balloons and equipment that could withstand the rigors of the field. His strengths and expertise won him the support of Maj Gen George B. McClellan, commander of the army of the Potomac. Unfortunately, Lowe's personality eventually became his undoing. Extremely jealous of other balloonists who offered their services to the Union army, he refused to cooperate with any of them. Although McClellan continued to support him, most other senior officers grew weary of Lowe's ego.

Lowe and his balloonists provided effective aerial reconnaissance during several major campaigns in 1862 and 1863. …

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