Eight days after the first shots of the Civil War were fired, Professor Thaddeus Lowe, a self taught scientist conducting ground breaking work in the field of aeronautics, embarked on a 500 mile hot air balloon voyage from Cincinnati, Ohio. His original plan was to reach Washington, D.C. to test the balloon’s ability for overland flight, and to eventually attempt flight across the Atlantic Ocean, but air currents altered his course and he landed on a plantation outside Union, South Carolina. Lowe’s journey, 150 years ago, through the night above the Ohio River Valley, the Cumberlands, the Alleghenies and across the southern wilderness of the Blue Ridge mountains seems lifted from the fantastical pages of a Jules Verne novel. Below is a contemporary article on Lowe’s flight, found in a historic South Carolina newspaper recently digitized and made available in Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.
Lowe wrote an account of his adventure on his balloon, the Enterprise, shared in newspapers across the country. The Keowee courier, a newspaper published in a town about 75 miles distant from Union, printed this colorful and detailed description, on May 25, 1861, of Lowe’s voyage. Having waited for over a month for optimal flying conditions, Lowe commenced preparing his balloon on April 19, 1861. Lowe left Cincinnati before dawn, at about 4 a.m., to great fanfare from the people of that city. With him were freshly printed newspapers, still wet with ink, discussing information about the very trip on which he was taking. Professor Lowe describes the ethereal beauty of his experience floating through the midnight air as the “moon and stars shone brightly.” He exclaimed that “the beauty of the scene baffles description; the moon had set, and the city of 170,000 sleepers, with its thousands of gas-lights glittering through the pitchy darkness was indescribably beautiful.” After 5 a.m. “the sun showed a golden rim above the horizon and soon sent a golden shower over the globe overhead.” The balloon continued to climb higher in the troposphere to an altitude of 11,000 feet, eventually ascending to estimated heights of 22,000 feet. That’s more than 4 miles above the earth! “Below and for miles around, was a barren wilderness, but at some distance I could see an occasional farmhouse.” He descended and sang out to men working in a field, asking “What state is this?” The Virginians never thought to look up from whence the mysterious voice came, certainly the idea of a voice originating from above their heads being inconceivable during this early period in aeronautical experimentation. Lowe continued on to parts of western South Carolina, where he attempted to land his balloon, but local inhabitants insisted that he continue with his “hellish contrivance” and land elsewhere.
Deciding that he must land soon, he neared the plantation of Kelton in rural Union County, South Carolina. “I heard many discharges of muskets. Not knowing, but being apprehensive that the globe was the object of firing, I prepared for making signals, when I should again near the earth.” Professor Lowe, dressed in his finest evening wear, descended to the ground with hat in hand and valve rope in the other. The Enterprise struck terror in the earthlings. Old folks prayed, people scattered in all directions, and cowered behind a log hut nearby. A 6 foot tall young woman assisted Professor Lowe in securing the balloon. “Men arrived with muskets, threatening destruction to the ‘devil’ that could travel through the air…but the tall woman assured [him] there was no danger, for all the men then in the neighborhood were cowards, the brave ones having gone to the wars.” Lowe was taken into town by wagon where a hotel keeper recognized him as a distinguished scientist whom he had seen the year previous on his travels north. The local newspaper editor corroborated the far-fetched story, avowing that the damp recently printed newspapers Lowe had brought with him were real. Amid cries of “tar and feather the Yankee,” Lowe was taken on to Columbia where professors at the University of South Carolina attested to the verity of his tale, being familiar with the various scientific instruments he brought along on his flight. Treated as a celebrity, save for a few scowls and threats by newly minted Confederates, he was graciously sent north on the train with all of his equipment and a passport granted by Columbia’s mayor to see Lowe safely through the Confederate States.
When Lowe arrived in Washington, D.C., he decided to offer his services to the U.S. Government, persuading them that the use of his balloons for reconnaissance during the recent conflict would be beneficial to the Union Army. Lowe sent a telegram (left) to President Lincoln, from 500 feet in the air in the Enterprise, during a demonstration on the grounds of what is now the National Mall in D.C. Lincoln was duly impressed and created the U.S. Army Civilian Balloon Corps in June 1861. Thaddeus Lowe conducted reconnaissance at the Battles of Bull Run, Seven Pines, Chancellorsville, Gaines Mill, Fredericksburg and other battles during the war. His aeronautical work serving the Union Army in the 1860s laid the foundations of the modern Air Force. The Balloon Corps served the Union for two years from 1861 to 1863, when Lowe resigned his post.
There is more content to be found in Chronicling America relating to Thaddeus Lowe (1832-1913) including experiments prior to 1861, his reconnaissance work serving the Union Army (example to the right), renting his balloon out for weddings in the sky after the Civil War, and his later projects such as developing the Pasadena railway in California. If you would like to search for yourself, go to the Search Pages and try searching variations such as Professor Lowe, Thaddeus Lowe, spelling the name Low without an e, and T. S. C. Lowe, balloon, Balloon Corps, etc. You can try searching by the names of his Balloons as well: Enterprise, Intrepid, City of New York, Eagle, Washington, Great Western, and the Constitution. Also, try searching All States and All Dates to see coverage by newspapers across the United States. Lowe’s life work falls neatly within the date parameters of Chronicling America (1860-1922).
This week, the National Air and Space Museum is commemorating Lowe’s June 18, 1861 balloon exhibition on what is now the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Check out the video, in which Curator Tom Crouch describes Lowe’s contribution to aeronautics and its use in military operations, http://www.nasm.si.edu/events/civilwar/. Also, the Air & Space Museum will be showing a film at their IMAX theater June 17, 2011, which will be available online as a live webcast at 7:00 p.m, http://www.nasm.si.edu/events/eventDetail.cfm?eventID=2851.
1. The Enterprise Balloon that Thaddeus Lowe flew from Cincinnati to Union, S.C. on April 19, 1861, courtesy of http://www.qwiki.com/q/#!/Union_Army_Balloon_Corps.
2. Keowee Courier, May 25, 1861, from Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.
3. Keowee Courier, May 25, 1861, from Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.
4. Lowe’s Telegram to President Lincoln from his Balloon, June 16, 1861. courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress, http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/P?mal:5:./temp/~ammem_Hf5Y::.
5. The national republican, June 21, 1861, from Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.
Further reading: Block, E. B. (1966). Above the Civil War: the Story of Thaddeus Lowe, Balloonist, Inventor, Railway Builder. Howell-North Books, Berkeley, California.