Monday, February 6, 2012

Demonstrating the Intrepid - 1861

Shortly after war broke out, the Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase suggested that the United States establish a balloon corps under the command of Thaddeus Lowe. This corps would provide aerial reconnaissance for the Union armies. Secretary Chase arranged a meeting between Lowe and President Abraham Lincoln on June 11, 1861.

On June 17, 1861, after meeting with the President, Lowe demonstrated his balloon. He drifted upwards to a height of 500 feet in a balloon called Enterprise from the vicinity of the Washington Mall. The balloon was filled with methane from the city’s natural gas supply. In a stroke of genius Lowe took a telegraph up with him in the balloon and sent Lincoln a telegram from the balloon. The President immediately invited Lowe back to the White House and spent the evening with him, after which he gave him a note of introduction to General Scott. When Lowe presented the note to Scott next morning, Scott's staff stonewalled him but Lincoln personally intervened and introduced Lowe to the General.

Lowe received funds to build a balloon on August 2, 1861. The first U.S. balloon designed for military use, the Union, was ready for action on August 28. Because he was forced to inflate the balloon with gas from municipal lines in Washington, D.C (he had not received his funds yet for a portable gas generator), the balloon could not be moved far, which limited operations to the Washington, DC, area.

On September 24, 1861, Lowe ascended to more than 1,000 feet (305 meters) near Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, and began telegraphing intelligence on the Confederate troops located at Falls Church, Virginia, more than three miles (4.8 kilometers) away. Union guns were aimed and fired accurately at the Confederate troops without actually being able to see them—a first in the history of warfare.

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