Sunday, July 24, 2011

Thaddeus Lowe's Excellent Adventure

In which a balloonist convinces the President by nearly getting himself killed

Colonel W. Tecumseh Sherman was dispirited on the morning of July 24 as the 79th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment marched away from Fort Corcoran to join a new commander. But he had another guest at Fort Corcoran he was ecstatic to see go.

T.S.C. Lowe, by Matthew Brady
Thaddeus Sobieski Coulincourt Lowe had taken up residence at 8:00 pm on July 22, drenched by the pouring rain, with his balloon in tow. Lowe had been cut out of McDowell's advance on Manassas Junction by a staffer who ordered him to let a competitor fill his balloon first. But the competitor's balloon had town on the trees on the Warrenton Turnpike near Centreville, and became useless for assisting with the battle.

Lowe attempted to bring his own balloon to Manassas, even though it was late in the day, but by the time he reached Fairfax Court House, McDowell's army was streaming past him. It was too dark to see further, and the next morning the storm started, so he reluctantly packed up to return to the capital, making it to Fort Corcoran before seeking shelter.

But at 5:30 am on July 24, he was ready to try again, acting on a rumor that the Confederates were marching on Washington to seize the capital. If he could bring back proof either way, it would be the boost he needed to get a lucrative government contract for aerial surveillance. Lowe's account from his memoirs:

In this voyage I started soon after sunrise while the atmosphere was clear, and sailed directly over the country occupied by the enemy as the lower current was blowing toward the west. Having seen what I desired, I rose to the upper current and commenced moving toward the east again until over the Potomac, when I commenced to descend, thinking that the under-current would take me back far enough to land near Arlington House. When within a mile of the earth, our troops commenced firing at the balloon, supposing it to belong to the rebels. I descended near enough to hear the whistling of the bullets and the shouts of the soldiers to "show my colors." As unfortunately I had no national flag with me, and knowing that if I attempted to effect a landing there, my balloon and very likely myself would be riddled, I concluded to sail on and to risk descending outside of our lines. This I accomplished, and landed on Mason's Plantation, five and a half miles from Alexandria, and two and a half miles outside our pickets. A detailed account of my escape would be interesting, but it is sufficient to say that I was kindly assisted in returning by the 31st New York Volunteers, and brought back the balloon, though somewhat damaged, owing to my having been obliged to land among trees. The balloon was generally supposed to be one of the enemy's and the authorities in Washington were telegraphed from Arlington to this effect.

He failed to note that it was his wife who, bringing a wagon for the balloon, rescued her husband from behind enemy lines by passing as a farm woman on an errand. Lowe had sketched the whole area and could say definitively that no Confederates were massing for an attack. He worked on it through the night and had it sent to a very unamused Winfield Scott. Lincoln's General-in-chief had enough on his mind with trying to fix the army before the Confederates did plan an attack, and he probably can be excused for believing an army that had failed to competently execute the old ways of doing things wasn't ready to be taught new ways.

Unfortunately for Scott, Lincoln had dinner with Lowe the night of July 24. The inventor convinced the President that if McDowell had had his balloons at Manassas, he would have been able to see all of Johnston and Beauregard's forces and carry out the exact right counter-move to defeat them (Scott could again be forgiven for believing if Robert Patterson had done his job, there would have been no need to see the Confederate maneuvers). The President was convinced and dashed off a note to Scott asking him to take a meeting with Lowe.

Lowe again:
The following morning I waited on Lieutenant General Scott, and presented the President's card. The orderly returned and stated that the General was engaged. I called again in a few hours, and received the same answer; a few hours later I was at his office again, and was informed that he was at lunch; the fourth time I called, and this time the General of the Army was asleep.

At the end of the day, Lowe returned to the White House at the President's bidding.
All this time the President was awaiting the result of my conference with General Scott, and when with some heat, possibly, I reported that General Scott could not be seen on official business even at the President's suggestion, he looked at me a moment, laughed, arose and seizing his tall silk hat bade me "come on." He proposed to find out what was the matter with Scott.
The two returned to Scott's headquarters, and this time the old general came out. Lowe recalled:
"General," said the President, "this is my friend Professor Lowe, who is organizing an Aeronautic Corps for the Army, and is to be its Chief. I wish you would facilitate his work in everyway, and give him a letter to Captain Dahlgren, Commandant of the Navy Yard, and one to Captain Meigs, with instructions for them to give him all the necessary things to equip his branch of the service on land and water."
Whether those were Lincoln's words or a story meant to legitimize a constant inventor and self-promoter (both the President and the general would be long dead by the time Lowe wrote down his memoirs), the wheels of government started turning slowly towards establishment of a balloon corps. At this point, anything that could provide an edge would be welcome.

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