Not the Worst Day for Ballooning

Sunday, June 23, 1861

Thaddeus Sobieski Coulincourt Lowe (“Professor Lowe” to pretty much everyone) was a self-taught balloonist. During the early 1850s, he had learned the craft mostly from books. He was able to build his own balloon by 1857, and another the following year. His dream to cross the Atlantic by air was twice cut short in late 1860.

In April of 1861, Professor Lowe wished to take a balloon from Cincinnati to Washington. In the predawn of April 20th, he left the ground, rose to an altitude of 12,000 feet where a prevailing current caught him. Nine hours later, after traveling 900 to 1,200 miles, he landed in a very unfriendly and seceded South Carolina. The locals thought that he was a devil and others suspecting him of being a Union spy. He was jailed for a day or so until his scientific background was figured out and then shipped back north.

In June, the Professor was called to Washington by Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase. The War Department had taken notice of him and wished to see for themselves what he could do.

By mid-June, he had met with President Lincoln and tested his balloon on the White House lawn, impressing the Executive.

On this date, at the request of General Irving McDowell, Professor Lowe ascended in his balloon over Falls Church, Virginia in order to note the positions of Confederate forces around Manassas. The weather, however had turned windy. The Professor tried several times to raise the balloon to an altitude high enough to see something, but he could see nothing aside from some dust clouds probably kicked up by cavalry. Even the town of Fairfax Court House, only eight miles away, was indiscernible.

He tried again at night to see if he could make out the campfires of the enemy, but again saw nothing. Like earlier experiments, he had brought along a telegraph and was able to send messages from the balloon. Unfortunately, these messages had not much to say.

They would try again the next day.1

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McClellan Arrives in a Country of Friends

Union General George B. McClellan arrived in Grafton at 2am and immediately gathered enough information on the Rebels to formulate a plan. He figured that there were 1,500 – 3,000 Confederates near Romney, 90 miles to the east. They were there, believed McClellan, to stop his force from reaching Winchester, Virginia. He wanted General Patterson in Hagerstown to take care of them.

As for the Rebels closer to him near Rich Mountain, he figured they were merely a cover for various guerrilla operations. In a few days, he wished to fall upon them with his entire force and “drive them into the mountains.” After that was accomplished, he wanted to “clean out the Valley of the Kanawha.”

In reality, Garnett’s force numbered around 4,000 at this time and the forces in the Kanawha numbered a few thousand. McClellan’s figures for the Rebels in Romney were in the ballpark, since Col. A.P. Hill had two regiments under his command (with a third on the way).2

McClellan also issued a proclamation to the people of western Virginia informing them that his army was lead by Virginia troops who would “religiously” respect their “houses, family, property and all of your rights.” This message also served as a warning for those who would do harm to the loyal Unionists – “they will be dealt with … according to the severest rules of military law.”3

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To Aid in its Demoralization

To accomplish the first goal in General-in-Chief Winfield Scott’s (as well as his own) plan, General Patterson sent a reconnaissance to Maryland Heights, opposite Harpers Ferry. They reported that it could be defended by about 2,500 men.

Of the Rebels, he had gathered some information from deserters. Supposedly, the entire force of 25,000 were situated between Williamsport and Winchester with 8,000 under Jackson coming towards him.

What Patterson really wanted to do was attack them at Martinsburg and hurl them back up the Valley to Winchester. He figured that this could be done in as little as ten days. Patterson also feared that this action might not be in General Scott’s plan, as the retreating Rebels would simply join with Beauregard’s army at Manassas. “They would, however,” reasoned Patterson, “go as fugitives, to aid in its demoralization.”

He wanted Scott to give him permission to attack, but probably figured that it would never come.4



  1. Aeronautics in the Union and Confederate Armies by Frederick Stansbury Haydon, Ayer Publishing, 1980. Some sources claim that on this date, Professor Lowe took a map maker with him and mapped out the Confederate positions. That, however, happened on the 24th, not the 23rd. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p195. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p195. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p717. []
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Not the Worst Day for Ballooning by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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