Sunday, June 12, 2011

"Lincoln's Air Force" and the Advent of Aerial Reconnaissance in the US

On Saturday,  the National Air and Space Museum sponsored a sesquicentennial commemoration of "Professor" Thaddeus Lowe's balloon demonstration on the National Mall.  The festivities included a replica balloon, living historians, cameo appearances by President Lincoln and Professor Lowe, and the dedication of a new plaque:

Lincoln, the only president to receive a patent, embraced technology and Lowe, who had been rebuffed by Army brass, sought to prove the balloon's military value.  With support from the Smithsonian Institution and the President's encouragement, Lowe conducted a demonstration on June 18, 1861 on the National Mall (just in front of where the Air and Space Museum stands today) to prove that "aeronauts" in balloons could both observe the enemy and deliver timely information to military commanders.  From 500 feet above the Mall, Lowe cabled to the White House:   "This point of observation commands an area nearly fifty miles in diameter.  This city, with its girdle of encampments, presents a superb scene.  I take great pleasure in sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station, and  in acknowledging my indebtedness to your encouragement for the opportunity of demonstrating the availability of the science of aeronautics in the military service of this country."

A replica of Thaddeus Lowe's balloon and inflation wagons on the National Mall near the exact spot where he demonstrated its military potential on June 18, 1861 by sending an airborne telegraph message to President Lincoln at the White House. 
Lincoln was hooked and directed his still skeptical military commanders to employ Lowe and his balloons in their operations.  Lowe and his "aeronauts" used the balloons to some good effect to observe Confederate lines in Northern Virginia and during the Peninsula Campaign.  On June 2, 1862, The New York Times reported on his efforts during the Battle of Fair Oaks:

"During the whole of the battle of this morning, Prof. Lowe's balloon was overlooking the terrific scene from an altitude of about two thousand feet.  Telegraphic communication from the balloon to General McClellan, and indirect connection with the military wires, was successfully maintained ... Every movement of the enemy was obvious, and instantly reported.   This is believed to be the first time in which a balloon reconnaissance has been successfully made during a battle, and certainly the first time in which a telegraph station has been established in the air to report the movements of the enemy, and the progress of a battle. The advantage to Gen. McClellan must have been immense."

Thaddeus Lowe inflating his balloon Intrepid during the Battle of Fair Oaks. (Courtesy Natl. Air & Space Museum)

This "immense" intelligence advantage, along with greatly outnumbering the Confederates, would not prevent McClellan from snatching defeat from the jaws of victory during the ill-fated Peninsula Campaign.  As for military ballooning, the temperamental Lowe's clashes with the Army and the balloons' then-complex logistical requirements led to its demise.  It would not be until World War One that aerial reconnaissance would be regularly gathered and used by the military.  Even with today's  satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles, balloons-- now called aerostats-- armed with advanced sensors remain an important, tactical surveillance tool for modern armies.

This 1856 painting of the National Mall gives us an idea of what the view (minus the absence of military encampments)would have looked like from aloft Lowe's balloon. The smokestack of the Washington Gas Light Company, which Lowe used for gas for his balloon, can be seen in the foreground. The white arrow points to the Mary Anne Hall House, which at the time, was one of the city's best known brothels.  The old Washington City Canal, which runs approximately where Constitution Avenue is today, is also visible on the right.  Note that in the mid-19th century, the banks of the Potomac came up to the Washington Monument (which the painter depicted as being completed even though construction had stopped).  The land where the Lincoln Memorial is was reclaimed later through filling (Natl. Air & Space Museum)

The Balloon Corps was recruiting on the National Mall yesterday.  I was considering joining for the $200 bounty and the chance to wear a  wool uniform in our balmy summertime weather.  (After all, fabrics that breathe are overrated. But I figured my wife would think I was just looking for any excuse to get out of mowing the lawn?  Did I mention that this weekend was really hot? (Photo by Author)
For more information on Civil War ballooning, an Air and Space Museum lecture on the topic is available on youtube.