Thaddeus Lowe

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Thaddeus Lowe

Born August 20, 1832
Jefferson Mills, New Hampshire
Died January 16, 1913
Pasadena, California

Balloonist for Union Army

Conducted military reconnaissance for
Union forces during Civil War

Thaddeus Lowe developed and supervised a fleet of manned balloons that provided valuable information to Union forces on enemy troop positions and movements. Lowe's balloons thus became the first aviation aircraft used in American military history. The U.S. government never really appreciated the value of Lowe's Balloon Corps, however. By mid-1863, administrative errors and general lack of support brought Lowe's balloon operations to an end.

Difficult childhood fosters independent spirit

Thaddeus Soieski Constantine Lowe was born in Coos County, New Hampshire, on August 20, 1832, to a family whose ancestors had fought in the Revolutionary War (1776–83). His parents, Clovis and Alpha Lowe, had four other children in addition to Thaddeus. By the time he was ten years old they decided that they could no longer provide for all of them. They arranged to hire Thaddeus out to a neighboring farmer who agreed to provide him with food, shelter, and adult guidance in exchange for work. Saddened at the idea of separation from his parents and siblings, Lowe reluctantly went off to live with his new guardians.

Lowe was treated poorly by the farmer and his wife. They were harsh disciplinarians who behaved as if he were their personal servant. They refused his requests for books to read and made little effort to provide for his education. Lowe, though, was very curious about the world around him. He borrowed books whenever he was able, and spent long hours exploring the neighboring countryside. Years later, Lowe recalled that he loved to look up into the sky during these excursions. "[I] would lie in a field or sit astride a picket fence, gazing for hours at the great white clouds hanging like banners or floating slowly across the skies," he said. Lowe's early interest in the sky and its mysterious properties eventually grew into a deep fascination with ballooning and aerial navigation.

By the time that Lowe was eleven years old, he had become so unhappy on the farm that he decided to run away. He chose the Fourth of July as his day of departure because of its status as a symbol of independence. He set out alone into the world with a small bag of belongings and eleven cents. He spent the next several years in small farming communities and Portland, Maine, before moving to Boston, Massachusetts.

Lowe spent his teenage years working at a variety of odd jobs in order to feed and clothe himself. But even though he had to devote a great deal of his time and energy to these jobs, he worked hard to increase his knowledge of chemistry and other subjects. His interest in the skies also remained strong, and he began using kites and balloons to conduct various experiments in aeronautics (the study of aircraft navigation).

Passion for flying

By the mid-1850s, Lowe had gained enough education in chemistry and other fields of science to support himself as a lecturer on these subjects. He spent nearly all of his free time, however, trying to develop a reliable balloon that would allow him to explore the skies that had fascinated him for so long.

People had been traveling through the air by balloon since 1783, when a Frenchman named Jean François de Rozier flew over Paris. (De Rozier died a few months later during an attempted flight over a European waterway known as the English Channel.) By the 1850s, American John Wise and other balloonists—sometimes called aeronauts—had made repeated ascents up into the skies in manned balloons. But ballooning remained an expensive and dangerous occupation that few people dared to attempt.

In February 1855, Lowe married Leontine Gachon, a Frenchwoman who encouraged his study of aeronautics. They settled in New England, where Lowe earned enough money to buy a balloon. In 1856, Lowe ascended in his balloon for the first time. His first ride was a "captive" ascent—one in which the balloon rises but is connected to the ground by a system of ropes. Within a short period of time, however, Lowe was making "free" ascents. He could then roam wherever he wished because no ropes kept the vessel tethered to the ground. "More ascensions followed as Lowe perfected his ballooning techniques, and he learned to make free ballooning flights across country," wrote Eugene B. Block in Above the Civil War. "He loved the silence in the air, the apparent stillness while the balloon, borne by the wind, moved effortlessly far above the surface of the earth."

By 1858, Lowe was constructing his own balloons and making flights of ever greater distance. In 1859, he constructed a huge balloon called the City of New York. He dreamed of flying that balloon across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. But two attempts to make this voyage ended in failure because his airship had problems retaining enough gas to stay inflated.

Lowe's most famous flight

In early 1861, Lowe abandoned his efforts to cross the Atlantic in favor of a flight across America's heartland. He and several other leading scientists believed that this flight would prove their theory that an eastward flowing air stream existed in the upper levels of the atmosphere, and that this air stream could someday be used to float across the ocean to Europe. Early in the morning of April 20, 1861, Lowe launched his bold experiment. Departing from Cincinnati, Ohio, he rose skyward until he was almost three miles above the earth. Just as he and his fellow scientists expected, he entered into a powerful air stream that carried him steadily eastward. His exhilarating voyage carried him over the Allegheny Mountains at altitudes that sometimes exceeded four and a half miles above the earth's surface. He finally landed outside Unionville, South Carolina, nine hours later, only to be taken into custody as a Union spy.

Lowe, as it turned out, had launched his flight in the opening days of the American Civil War. This conflict between the nation's Southern and Northern states began in April 1861. The two sides had become extremely angry with one another over the years, especially over the issue of slavery. Many Northerners believed that slavery was immoral. Some people wanted to outlaw it, while others wanted the Federal government to stop it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But slavery played a big role in the Southern economy and culture, and white Southerners felt threatened by Northern efforts to contain slavery. They believed that each state should decide for itself whether to allow slavery. They did not want the national government to pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life. The two sides finally went to war in the spring of 1861 when the Southern states tried to secede from (leave) the United States and form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America.

When Lowe first landed in South Carolina, he worried that he might be thrown into prison or even executed. The local townspeople who watched him land had never seen anything like his balloon before, and they viewed its "Yankee" (Northerner) owner with suspicion and alarm. They grew even more doubtful of his truthfulness when he insisted that he had flown all the way from Cincinnati, more than nine hundred miles away. But Lowe finally convinced them of his honesty when he pulled out a Cincinnati newspaper that explained the details of his flight. The Southern authorities promptly released him and his balloon. But when he returned North, he made his way to Washington, D.C., to volunteer his balloon expertise to the Union cause.

Balloonist for the Union

Within a few weeks of his arrival in Washington, Lowe was granted an audience with President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry). During his meeting with the president, Lowe explained his belief that balloons could be used by the Union Army as a valuable tool in tracking Confederate positions and troop movements. After all, they could rise to heights that would allow passengers to peer onto the other side of forests and hills and mountains, where Confederate camps and armies might be lurking. Lowe noted that this information would greatly help Union generals in devising their military strategies.

Lincoln was intrigued by Lowe's presentation. A few days later, Lowe further demonstrated the value of his balloons by sending a telegraphic message to the ground from a height of five hundred feet. This demonstration impressed Lincoln so much that he assigned the civilian (non-military) balloonist to the Army of the Potomac and named him chief of army aeronautics. Lowe remained a civilian, but he received an army salary that was equivalent to that earned by a colonel.

Over the next two years, Lowe provided valuable assistance to Union forces. He developed a fleet of seven balloons, each of which was capable of taking army officers thousands of feet above the ground. From these high vantage points, Union observers were able to develop accurate maps, determine effective transportation routes, and scout possible campsites. Best of all, Lowe's small but effective Balloon Corps enabled Union officers to observe Confederate activities. Union artillery officers, for example, sometimes used the balloons to help them determine where to aim their cannons in the middle of battles. The balloons also allowed the Union to track enemy movements and see where rebel (Confederate) armies were camped. In fact, it was not unusual for observers in Lowe's balloons to detect smoke from enemy camps at distances of twenty-five miles or more.

Not surprisingly, Lowe's balloons became a prime target for Confederate gunfire and artillery shells. The rebels knew that the balloons were used by the Union to gather military information. With the balloons in use, the Confederates had a difficult time launching surprise attacks and keeping the size of their armies secret. Confederate forces subsequently fired on Lowe and other members of his Balloon Corps whenever they could in hopes of bringing one of the airships down. This desire to shoot Lowe down led one historian to call the balloonist "the most shot-at man in the war."

Lack of support causes frustration

As the war progressed, Lowe and his fleet of balloons gained many admirers in the Union Army. Army of the Potomac commander George B. McClellan (1826–1885; see entry) and his cavalry commander George Stoneman (1822–1894) became particularly vocal supporters of Lowe. They praised the usefulness of the balloons in their reports and urged the Federal government to increase its financial support for Lowe's corps.

Despite these expressions of support, though, Lowe experienced great frustration during his service to the Army of the Potomac. His Balloon Corps received little financial or administrative support from the U.S. War Department. In addition, many Union officers stubbornly refused to consider using the balloons, even though their effectiveness had been proven. Instead, they relied on cavalry and other traditional scouting methods with which they were familiar. Finally, Lowe's repeated requests to be given a military commission (an officer ranking in the army) were ignored.

The army's refusal to grant Lowe a military commission infuriated him. After all, he and his fellow balloonists had braved enemy cannonfire and stormy weather for almost two years in order to provide the Union Army with valuable reconnaissance information. This disappointment, along with continued bureaucratic interference, finally convinced Lowe to resign his position in May 1863. Lowe's Balloon Corps remained in operation a few months longer, but it quickly fell apart without its leader. The Corps formally disbanded (broke up) on August 1, 1863, marking an end to aerial scouting activity in the war.

Lowe's resignation did not attract that much attention in the North. But several officers and scientists who had witnessed his exploits (bold deeds) sent him letters expressing their appreciation for his efforts on behalf of the Union. Major General George Stoneman, for example, offered heartfelt words of thanks to the balloonist for his service: "I beg to testify to you in writing, as I often have in words, my appreciation of the valuable services you have rendered the government during your connection with the Army of the Potomac. . . . I have been up in [your balloons] often and never made an ascent without coming down much better informed in regard to everything in my vicinity than I could possibly have been by other means. Valuable as your balloons have been, I feel satisfied that you would have made them still more so had you been encouraged by having more facilities [resources] extended to you."

Inventor and businessman

After the war, Lowe became a noted inventor and entrepreneur. He devised a new process for manufacturing artificial ice in 1866, and in 1873 he developed a manufacturing process that greatly improved the use of gaslight illumination. He also introduced new processes in the steelmaking industry and financed the construction of an observatory and an electric railway in California. In the late 1890s, however, Lowe experienced financial difficulties that dogged him for the rest of his life. He died in California in 1913.

Where to Learn More

Block, Eugene B. Above the Civil War: The Story of Thaddeus Lowe, Balloonist, Inventor, Railroad Builder. Berkeley, CA: Howell-North Books, 1966.

Hoehling, Mary. Thaddeus Lowe: America's One-Man Air Corps. New York: Messner, 1958.

Karr, Kathleen. Spy in the Sky. New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 1997.

Sims, Lydel. Thaddeus Lowe: Uncle Sam's First Airman. New York: Putnam, 1964.

Longstreet's View of Lowe's Balloon Corps

Many Confederate soldiers and officers admitted that they were very relieved when Lowe's Balloon Corps disbanded in 1863. Years after the Civil War concluded, the famous Confederate general James Longstreet (1821–1904; see entry) wrote Thaddeus Lowe a letter in which he expressed admiration for Lowe's ballooning exploits. He also talked about the South's failed effort to launch a balloon of its own:

I was . . . in the woods May 2, 1862, when I saw your balloon about to rise. Then commenced [began] a heavy cannonading from the Confederate works [artillery]. Shots went over our heads, tearing six branches from the trees.

The balloon rose, and the firing was soon directed at this air target, shot after shot, shells exploding way up, and occasionally the sharp crack of a rifle would be heard when our sharpshooters took a chance shot—and it kept up for half a day. No damage was done, except slaughter of five old trees and great holes in the ground where the solid shot struck.

At all times we were fully aware that you Federals [Union forces] were using balloons to examine our positions and we watched with envious eyes their beautiful observations as they floated high in the air, well out of range of our guns. While we were longing for balloons that poverty denied us, a genius arose and suggested that we send out and get every silk dress in the Confederacy and make a balloon.

It was done and soon we had a great patchwork ship of many and various hues [colors] which was ready for use in the Seven Days' campaign [a battle in Virginia that lasted from June 25 to July 1, 1862].

We had no gas [for the balloon] except in Richmond and it was the custom to inflate the balloon there, tie it securely to an engine, and run it down the York River Railroad to any point at which we desired to send it up. One day it was on a steamer down the James River when the tide went out and left the vessel and the balloon high and dry on a bar [sandbar]. The Federals gathered it in, and with it the last silk dress in the Confederacy. This capture was the meanest trick of the war and one I have never yet forgiven.