Civil War memories take an aerial turn Saturday, with a 150-year-anniversary celebration of the birth of the U.S. Balloon Corps on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Outside the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air andSpace Museum, curators and actors will re-create the first moments of balloonist Thaddeus Lowe’s storied ascent to 500 feet. From this perch in June of 1861, Lowe telegraphed to President Lincoln a description of the Army camps then surrounding the nation’s capital in the first months of the Civil War.
“He could see for 25 miles in every direction,” says senior aeronautics curator Tom Crouch. “President Lincoln was fascinated and very enthusiastic.”
It turns out Lincoln’s support was critical. Lowe, a private citizen, struggled for weeks to get an appointment with the War Department, finally needing a letter from the president just to get his idea off the ground.
Lowe’s 1861 flight was the start of the U.S. military’s era of aerial reconnaissance, although the wartime record of his civilian balloon corps was decidedly mixed, returning sketchy intelligence from early battlefields. It was disbanded by 1863.
Even so, the ascent proved an apt symbol of the technological times that dominated the Civil War era, experts say, the first mass war dominated by railroads, factories, telegraphs and other industrial age innovations such as submarines and ironclad ships.
“Balloons kind of brought together a lot of the elements — telegraph, photography, logistics — that were emerging in warfare at the time,” says historian Tim McNeese of York (Neb.) College, co-author of Technology and the Civil War.
The most important technology of the war was the Minié ball rifled-musket bullet, which caused about 85% of the war’s roughly 212,000 battle deaths. McNeese said the Civil War was particularly deadly precisely because such technologies being used widely on a battlefield for the first time.
Although some European armies had flirted earlier with ballooons, the use of Civil War aerial observers did have one historical effect, Crouch notes: One of Lowe’s discharged balloonists gave a balloon ride to a wartime observer from Germany that year, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.
“Zeppelin always credited that ride with his idea for a moveable balloon,” Crouch says. Fifty years later, the Zeppelin airships he imagined ranged over Europe in World War I.
At the Mall celebration, the recreated 1861 balloon will stay on the ground to comply with U.S. Park Service regulations designed to keep the airspace safe over the capital, but viewers will be able to see televised views of the vista that Lowe sought, as captured from construction site balloons nearby. Re-enactors will bring in a restored coal gas wagon, used to fill wartime ballooons, and the museum will feature related exhibits.
“For an air and space museum, it’s a remarkable anniversary,” Crouch says.