U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers

The Topographical Engineer Balloon Corps

Reports of Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe

 

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replenishing gas
Prof. Lowe replenishing the Intrepid from the Balloon Constitution during the Battle of Fair Oaks, June, 1862. Library of Congress

 

During the months of January and February balloons were kept in constant use at Budd’s Ferry, Md., under the orders of General Hooker; at Poolesville, Md., General Stone’s command; at Fort Royal, S.C., General Sherman’s command, and there was one also sent to Cairo, Ill. The one last mentioned was used by Commodore Foote at the attack on Island No.10. During the bombardment an officer of the Navy ascended and discovered that our shot and shell went beyond the enemy, and by altering the range our forces were soon able to compel the enemy to evacuate.

Up to the 1st of March I was principally occupied in visiting the different balloon stations and keeping everything in order. As the reports were made directly to the officers in command of the posts where the balloons were stationed, I can only furnish the following communications:

 

POOLESVILLE, January 20, 1862.

 

Professor LOWE,

National Hotel, Washington:

Please send up the small balloon immediately. The large one has suffered in its varnish from the excessively bad wearther.

 

C.P. STONE,

Brigadier-General of Volunteers.

 

 

 

POOLESVILLE, January 25, 1862.

 

Professor LOWE,

National Hotel, Washington:

The balloon Intrepid got an inch of ice on it last night and is reported much injured. Hurry up the smaller one.

 

C.P. STONE,

Brigadier-General.

 

 

On the 10th of February I transmitted the following report of observations made by one of my assistants on Monday afternoon, 3 p.m., near Edwards Ferry:

 

Since my last observation I have discovered an increase of encampments in and about Leesburg, Va. They have commenced throwing up earth-works on the south side of Goose Creek and one mile and a half from the river.

No additional improvement has been made upon the old work that commands the ferry, and I think it is still unfinished.

The large fort west of Leesburg has been improved. It also appears that they have mounted some heavy guns. I could see no charge about the works south of Leesburg. (I should judge that these were entrenchments.)

There are two large encampments (new) on the road running to the west from Leesburg, near the large stone house, which is, I think, one mile from town; also an encampment in the woods south of the large fort and west of the two encampments near the stone bridge.

On the north and south side of Leesburg I noticed an increase of encampments close to the town.

In and around the large fort west of Leesburg there is, I think, a regiment.

On Goose Creek, about three miles from the river, there are some encampments. I could not tell how many there were, as they are partly concealed by the woods.

About five miles to the southeast of Goose Creek and one mile from the river I observed large quantities of smoke rising from the woods.

To the rear of Ball’s Bluff I observed a small camp (two or three companies). Judging from the size and number of encampments, I should think there were from 10,000 to 12,000 troops opposite.

 

 

 

POOLESVILLE, February 21, 1862.

T.S.C. LOWE:

I should like the balloon to be put in readiness to make an ascension as early as possible.

JNO. SEDGWICK,

Brigadier-General, Commanding Division.

 

 

On the 1st of March, by request of General Heintzelman, I was ordered to take a balloon to Pohick Church, on the Occoquan River, and the following are some of the reports made at that time:

 

POHICK CHURCH, March 5, 1862.

 

Captain MOSES,

Assistant Adjutant-General, Fort Lyon, Va.:

Have just made two ascensions with the balloon. It is fully inflated, and will take up two persons with all the ropes. If to-morrow is a fine day it would be a good time for the general to go up. I can see camp-fires on the Occoquan.

 

T.S.C. LOWE,

Chief Aeronaut, U.S. Army.

 

 

 

MARCH 6, 1862-11 a.m.

 

Brigadier-General MARCY,

Chief of Staff, Army of the Potomac:

I made two ascensions last evening. Saw fires at Fairfax Station; some on the road near the Occoquan. This morning cavalry scouts are visible on this side of the Occoquan below Sandy Run. There are five large smokes on the other side of the Occoquan, commencing at the ford below Wolf Creek and extending to the Potomac. Judging from appearances, compared with General Hooker’s division, I should think their force inferior to his. The balloon at Budd’s Ferry has been up all the morning at the same time with me. If the force here could be advanced across Pohick Creek on the heights, I should have no difficulty in getting very near the exact number of the enemy, as well as all of their fortified places.

We could also signal from one balloon to the other, which would be of importance to me.

I have sent for the balloon at Poolesville. Please inform me where to station it.

Your obedient servant,

T.S.C. LOWE,

Chief Aeronaut.

 

 

 

POHICK CHURCH, March 6, 1862.

 

Brigadier General R.B. MARCY,

Chief of Staff, Army of the Potomac:

GENERAL: I ascended at 5 this p.m. and remained up until 6 o"clock. It was calm and clear, and many of the enemy’s camps were visible, and the smoke ascending straight gave a good idea of the enemy’s position.

There are more smokes than usual at Fairfax Station, and a line of picket smokes extending southeast from there and nearly forming a junction with our lines running toward Springfield Station.

Heavy smokes (besides those seen in the morning) at Dumfries, Brentsville, Bradley’s and Manassas. General Heintzelman was here at 2 o’clock and went up twice.

I am greatly in need of that map that I spoke about yesterday to enable me to name place and distance more correctly. The one I have is small and inaccurate.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

T.S.C. LOWE,

Chief Aeronaut.

 

 

 

POHICK CHURCH, March 6, 1862.

 

Captain E. SEAVER,

In Charge of Balloon, Budd’s Ferry, Md.:

I saw your balloon up this morning, but not this p.m. If to- morrow morning is calm I shall ascend at 7 o"clock, or the first favorable spell. Do the same at your place, with one of your signal officers, that I may see if signals may be used at this distance.

 

T.S.C. LOWE,

Chief Aeronaut.

 

 

On the 7th General Berry, of General Heintzelman’s command, ascended several times and discovered the evacuation of the Occoquan, which he reported to the latter officer. This was the first indication of the retirement of the enemy from Manassas.

I was personally absent in Washington, preparing a balloon to be taken to a point near Fairfax Court-House to watch for the evacuation, as it was somewhat expected, but for want of transportation I was unable to reach Fairfax until the 10th. To show with what esteem the commanding general held the operations of the aeronautic department, the following orders are submitted, which embrace all the items of interest up to the 1st of April, and it is believed that they indicate an appreciation of my services after an experience of the previous seven months:

 

WASHINGTON, D.C., March 12, 1862.

 

Mr. T.S.C. LOWE,

Aeronaut, Army of the Potomac:

SIR: You will make arrangements without delay to send to Fortress Monroe, Va., a balloon with all the requisite apparatus and materials for inflating it and making ascensions, and an aeronaut to manage the same.

By order of Major-General McClellan:

J.N. MACOMB,

Lieutenant-Colonel, Aide-de-Camp, in Charge of Balloons.

 

 

 

HALL'S HILL, March 8, 1862.

 

Professor LOWE,

National Hotel, Washington:

I am authorized by General McClellan to call upon you for the balloon and inflating apparatus from Poolesville, and will be glad to have it here at as early an hour as possible, to take an observation a short distance in advance, where it will be well protected. Please reply what hour you will send it, as I desire to take an advantage of clear and calm wearther. I wish the balloon but a few hours.

 

F.J. PORTER,

Brigadier-General.

 

 

 

HALL'S HILL, March 9, 1862.

 

Professor LOWE:

Have your balloon out to Fairfax Court-House at as early an hour to-morrow as possible. Major Stone will give you all the facilities you desire. Show this to him.

By command of General F.J. Porter:

FRED. T. LOCKE,

Assistant Adjutant-General.

 

 

 

WASHINGTON, D.C., March 13, 1862.

 

Major General J.E. WOOL,

Commanding Department of Virginia, Fortress Monroe, Va.:

GENERAL: By order of Major-General McClellan I send to you an aeronaut. Mr.E. Seaver, with a balloon and all necessary apparatus for making ascensions, who is instructed to report to you without delay.

I would very respectfully request that the aeronaut be furnished with such aid as may be required to manage the balloon to the best advantage, and trusting that by its means you will be able at all times to ascertain the position and movements of the enemy.

I remain, with respect, your obedient servant,

T.S.C. LOWE,

Chief Aeronaut, Army of the Potomac.

 

 

 

WASHINGTON, D.C., March 15, 1862.

 

Lieutenant Colonel J.N. MACOMB,

Aide-de-Camp and Major of Topographical Engineers:

COLONEL: In accordance with orders, I proceeded yesterday from the Washington Navy-Yard to Budd’s Ferry, and shipped the balloon and apparatus on board the steamer Hugh Jenkins, for Fortress Monroe, Va.

The dispatch which I had sent to Mr. Seaver to get the apparatus in his charge ready to move had not been received, and I found the balloon on the Virginia side of the river inflated, where it had been in use, and consequently my time was occupied during the entire night in getting the things together and shipping the same, in order that they might be on the way this morning, which I accomplished. On examination it was found impossible to turn the balloon barge until some repairs have been made to her rudder post, which got damaged during the late storm. I therefore sent the generator mounted upon wheels.

I sent Mr. Seaver to operate the balloon at Fort Monroe, with credentials as, Mr. Mason and Mr. C. Lowe did not arrive in time, they being occupied at Fairfax Court-House and Pohick Church, arranging apparatus for moving. I will send one of them to assist Mr. Seaver to-morrow or next day.

Very respectfully, your most obedient servant,

T.S.C. LOWE,

Chief Aeronaut.

 

 

 

SEMINARY, March 20, 1862.

 

Professor LOWE,

National Hotel, Washington:

I wish your balloon to embark with me at 9 to-morrow.

F.J. PORTER,

Brgadier-General, Headquarters near Seminary.

 

 

 

HEADQUARTERS PORTER'S DIVISION,

March 21, 1862.

 

OFFICER IN CHARGE OF BALLOON PARTY:

SIR: You will prepare to embark this morning with this division. You will take three days" cooked provisions and three days" uncooked. You will be ready to march by 9 o’clock this morning.

By command of Brigadier General F.J. Porter:

FRED. T. LOCKE,

Assistant Adjutant-General.

 

 

 

 

HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,

Near Alexandria Seminary, Va., March 22, 1862.

 

Mr. LOWE,

National Hotel, Washington, D.C.:

SIR: The commanding general directs that you make your arrangements to proceed to Fort Monroe with your balloons the same time that he moves, probably in the course of the following week. The general will probably establish his headquarters on the steamer Commodore in a day or two.

I inclose your accounts approved, and with an order for its payment by Lieutenant-Colonel Macomb indorsed thereon.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

S. WILLIAMS,

Assistant Adjutant-General.

 

 

 

HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,

March 23, 1862.

 

T.S.C. LOWE,

Chief Aeronaut, National Hotel, Washington:

The commanding general directs that you proceed with your balloons and apparatus to Fort Monroe, Va., and there await his further orders.

It is understood that you have left a balloon with General Wardsworth, and that General F.J. Porter has one with him. Is this so? Please answer.

 

S. WILLIAMS,

Assistant Adjutant-General.

 

 

 

HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,

March 23, 1862.

 

Prof. T.S.C. LOWE,

Chief Aeronaut, National Hotel:

The commanding general directs that on arriving at Fort Monroe you land all your balloons save one, which you will keep on board subject to his future directions.

 

S. WILLIAMS,

Assistant Adjutant-General.

 

 

On the 3rd of April I received an order from General McClellan to accompany General Porter in his advance to Yorktown. On the following morning at 5 o’clock the division left Hampton and advanced as far as Cockletown, and on the 5th arrived in front of Yorktown. The aeronautic train, consisting of four army wagons and two gas generators, having to move in the rear, arrived a little after noon and were put in position for inflating the balloon. Our operations were impeded for an hour or more by our position being shelled by the enemy, but notwithstanding this the balloon was ready at 5.30 o"clock, and an observation was taken by an officer of the general’s staff. At 3 o’clock the next morning I ascended and remained up until after daylight, observing the camp-fires and nothing the movements of the enemy. On descending a messenger handed me the following order:

APRIL 6, 1862.

 

Professor LOWE:

The commanding general desires you to make an ascension as soon as you can. Look for the movement of wagons and teams; also where the largest number of men are.

Send word what is passing as soon as you can.

Very respectfully,

FRED. T. LOCKE,

Assistant Adjutant-General.

 

 

These observation being of great importance, I went to General Porter’s tent and made my report, and requested that he should ascend that he might judge for himself of the number of the enemy and strength of their works. This he did, and remained up one hour and forty-five minutes at an elevation of 1,000 feet, and within a mile of the enemy’s works. On descending, all the generals were called together and a council held. During the day several draughtsmen were sent up who sketched maps of the positions of the enemy, &c. In the afternoon the Count de Paris ascended with General Porter, and near sundown General Butterfield ascended to a height of 1,000 feet.

The observation and maps thus made were of the greatest importance, and readily enabled the commanding officer to decide what course he would pursue.

In the evening of the same day I received the following order from General McClellan:

 

HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,

April 6, 1862.

 

Professor LOWE:

General McClellan directs that you send a balloon to General Keyes" headquarters at Warwick Court-House as soon as possible.

By command of Major-General McClellan:

A.V. COLBURN,

Assistant Adjutant-General.

 

 

In compliance with this order I proceeded to Fortress Monroe to move another balloon to General Keyes" command, and left the one then inflated and in use before Yorktown in charge of the only assistant aeronaut I was then allowed, excepting one in charge of the balloon-boat at Fortress Monroe.

After stationing the balloon at Warwick Court-House (the train having to move over the worst roads I ever saw) I started on the night of the 10th for Yorktown. Our lines having been changed during my absence, I found myself, about 9 o’clock p.m., within the enemy’s lines. I was not sensible of the danger I was in until I heard signals given by a low whistle, which I at once knew to be those of the rebels, and accordingly cautiously retraced my steps and spent the night at the camp of one of our advanced regiments. The next morning at daybreak I took the road to Yorktown, and at 6.30 I was surprised by the descent of a balloon very near me. On reaching the spot I found it to be the one I had left in charge of my assistant at Yorktown, and General Fitz John Porter the occupant. The gas had entirely escaped when the balloon reached the earth, from the fact that the general in his eagerness to come to the ground (on finding that the rope by which the balloon was let up had parted) had opened the value until all the gas had escaped, and as the balloon was constantly falling the silk was kept extended, and presented so large a surface to the atmosphere that it served the purpose of a parachute, and consequently the descent was not rapid enough to be dangerous.

I would here remark that a balloon suddenly relieved of its gas will always form a half sphere, provided it has a sufficient distance to fall in to condense a column of air under it. A thousand feet would, I presume, be sufficiently high to effect this and to make the descent in safety.

On inquiring into the cause of the accident I found that Mr. Allen, the assistant in charge of the balloon, had used but one rope, as had used but one rope, as had been his idea of topical ascents, instead of three and sometimes four, as I always did, and that rope had been partially injured by acid which had accidentally got on it.

I found it difficult for a time to restore confidence among the officers as to the safety of this means of observation on account of this accident, personal ascensions I made gradually secured a return of their favor, and on the 13th of April I received the following communication:

 

 

APRIL 13, 1862.

 

PROFESSOR: General Barnard is General McClellan’s chief engineer, and is located in his camp. General McClellan is very anxious for him to have an ascension early in the morning, and General B. will be prepared to accompany your messenger, whom I beg of you to direct to wait to take General Barnard to the location of the balloon. I would ascend myself did not General B. wish and General McClellan wish him to go. General McClellan’s camp is along the telegraph wire. Send the messenger to me if you do not know. I beg of you to give him a good and safe ascension.

Yours, truly,

F.J. PORTER.

 

P.S.-Send one of our men to rouse General B. at daylight, and wait to take him to your balloon. I think the best place is down the hollow where you were camped.

 

 

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BIBLIOGRAPHY: Lowe, T. S. C., 1911, (in) The Photographic History of the Civil War. Volume IV, pp 369 - 382. Scott, Robert N. Lt. Col. (prepared by), The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Vols. 5, 11, 21, 25, 51; Series III, Vol. 1. Government Printing Office, WashingtonImages courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The citation for this article is: The U. S. Corps of Topographical Engineers, s.v., http://www.topogs.org/balloon.html < balloon1.html>< balloon2.html> <balloon3.html>< balloon4.html>< balloon5.html> (accessed  <date>).

 

 

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