Smithsonian recounts balloon flights of Civil War
WASHINGTON (AP) — The National Air and Space Museum will re-create a key moment in the nation's first attempt at an air force during the Civil War 150 years ago — decades before the first airplane flight.
In June 1861, Thaddeus Lowe flew 500 feet above the National Mall in a gas-filled balloon to show President Abraham Lincoln how balloons could be used to spy on the Confederates. Lowe's balloon, the Enterprise, remained tethered to the ground, and Lowe sent Lincoln the first telegram ever transmitted from the air.
"The flight was designed to draw Abraham Lincoln into the business," said Smithsonian flight historian Tom Crouch. "Lincoln was fascinated by technology."
Lowe's handlers then pulled the balloon close to the ground and guided it to the White House. The "aeronaut" was invited to stay and discuss its potential with the president. They talked into the early morning hours, according to historical accounts.
Lowe's flight eventually led to the creation of the Union Balloon Corps and the start of aerial espionage in the United States.
The idea came earlier in 1861 when Lowe launched a balloon flight from Cincinnati to South Carolina to try to raise interest in ballooning. Fort Sumter had just been fired on at the start of the war, though, and Lowe's balloon came down in enemy territory.
"Here was this Yankee" with a thick Northeast accent, Crouch said. "And they arrest him. They think he's a spy."
After Lowe was released, he took his idea to Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry, who coordinated the flight demonstration in Washington and introduced the balloonist to Lincoln.
"Without Lincoln's interest, it probably wouldn't have happened," Crouch said. "There was resistance in the War Department. It was new and untried. Nobody was sure how it would work."
Soon Lowe was leading a corps of nine civilian aeronauts and seven balloons. They operated with the Army of the Potomac, coming under fire at Fredericksburg, Va., and elsewhere and sent balloons to the southern coast and western rivers.
The Confederates followed with a balloon of their own. Their first was a hot air balloon that didn't work well. Then they commissioned a balloon made of dress silk called the Gazelle that conducted aerial espionage for years before being captured by Union forces.
On Saturday, the museum will inflate a balloon similar to Lowe's Enterprise and host re-enactors portraying Lowe and Lincoln, with presentations on Civil War ballooning. The National Park Service won't allow the balloon to fly, though. The events run from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The museum also has photographs and Lowe's binoculars on display. A piece of the Confederate Gazelle balloon and other equipment is on view at the museum's annex in northern Virginia.
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