A Better Day for a Balloon Ride and Fine Time with a Coffee Mill

Monday, June 24, 1861

No doubt General Beauregard has looked up on the high position of Professor Lowe with considerable amazement. All his far-reaching guns will fail to reach the messenger, who, from his cloudy seat, spies out the weak points of the traitor’s nest.
-Washington Sunday Morning Chronicle

The weather that kept Professor Lowe from viewing the Confederate Army of the Potomac’s position near Manassas the day before had lifted. The Professor wasn’t alone on this flight, however. A cartographer, Major Leonard Colburn, was sent along to draw a map showing Beauregard’s position.

The map (seemingly lost to antiquity) accurately showed streams, roads and houses. Even doubters of the effectiveness of balloons for military service were silenced when they saw the results on paper laid out before them. General Irving McDowell, commander of Union troops in the area, was one of those skeptics. “I have not been much of a convert to ballooning in military operations,” wrote the General to a local on the same day the map was drawn, “but the last ascent… convince[s] me that a balloon may at times greatly assist military movements.”

While the map was rough, it was accurate. Professor Lowe even spotted a few Confederate camps. One, at Fairfax Court House, consisted of as many as twenty tents. The results may not have been as spectacular as they had hoped, but anyone could see the potential.

It was also rumored that the Confederates were working on their own balloons at this time. One such experiment was said to have taken place over Fairfax on the 23rd and 24th. Since Professor Lowe would probably have seen such an aerostat, it’s unlikely that the rumors were true. However, a month earlier, several aeronauts had offered their services to the Southern government. Still, it is unlikely that the Confederates had a balloon of their own until a few months later.1

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An Army in Six Square Feet

In the early stages of the war, President Lincoln found himself interested in a variety of new gadgets and weapons. One such weapon, seen through modern eyes, could be called an “early ancestor of the machine gun.” In reality, however, it was a machine gun.

A fellow from New York named J.D. Mills presented the work of either Edward Nugent or William Palmer, both of whom patented the weapon and ended up fighting over it for years. Through a political connection, he had gotten the ear of the President and on this date, they walked up the stairs of a carriage house across Pennsylvania Avenue from the Willard Hotel.

It was there that Lincoln first set his eyes upon the Union Repeating Rifle. A square, funneled hopper topped the gun, making it look more like a dangerous coffee mill than military armament. Standard issue .58-caliber paper cartridges were dumped into the hopper and, when a crank was turned, the cartridges fell into the firing mechanism and fired off as rapidly as they could load.

Needless to say, President Lincoln saw the potential in such a device. A few days later, a firing demonstration took place on the Washington Arsenal grounds. Lincoln, along with several Cabinet members saw it in action. This display convinced Lincoln and others that Coffee Mill Guns could be incredibly useful in defending fortifications and bridges.

Like with many innovations and the government, however, the gun’s time would have to wait.2

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McDowell Reveals His Plan

Union General-in-Chief Winfield Scott asked both Generals Patterson and McDowell to come up with plan of operation to defeat the Rebel army. Patterson did so on the 21st, and on this date McDowell submitted his own ideas.

While Patterson’s plan was little more than a rewording of Scott’s own ideas, McDowell broke it down to specifics. Like Patterson, McDowell concentrated on what was in his front in Alexandria. He could send no troops to help Patterson in taking Leesburg. In fact, the forces were so far apart that neither could support the other.

McDowell calculated that around 25,000 Confederates, Beauregard’s Army of the Potomac, were camped in the Manassas area. He (McDowell) commanded less that 14,000 and Patterson had around 20,000. McDowell seemed to figure that Patterson could and would take Leesburg and keep the Rebels in Johnston’s Army of the Shenandoah from joining with Beauregard.

For his part, McDowell wanted first to occupy Vienna. For this, he would need a force of 8,000. Once established, the goal of the campaign should be Manassas, which he wished to attack with no less than 30,000 soldiers with 10,000 in reserve.

He proposed a three-pronged plan. The Rebels held both Centerville and Fairfax Court House which stood in the way of Manassas. They would be dealt with by a column marching from Vienna and another column marching from Alexandria via the Little River Turnpike to cut them off. A third column would take the Orange & Alexandria Railroad directly to Manassas. There, all three columns would unite for one final push.

McDowell’s plan made little mention of Patterson or even of Scott’s own ideas. It required many more troops than he had, and the rebuilding of a railroad. He practically ignored Johnston’s army, figuring that Patterson could hold them off.

Now that Scott had both Patterson’s and McDowell’s thoughts on the matter, only time would tell which path they would take.3



  1. Aeronautics in the Union and Confederate Armies by Frederick Stansbury Haydon. []
  2. Lincoln and the Tools of War by Robert V. Bruce, University of Illinois Press, 1989. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p718-721. []
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A Better Day for a Balloon Ride and Fine Time with a Coffee Mill by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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