Monday, February 13, 2012

War Balloons - 1861-1863

The balloon’s demonstration triumph led the Secretary of War Simon Cameron to direct Lowe to build four additional balloons. Two more followed shortly. The fleet now consisted of the Intrepid, Constitution, United States, Washington, Eagle, Excelsior, and the original Union. The balloons ranged in size from 32,000 cubic feet (906 cubic meters) down to 15,000 cubic feet (425 cubic meters). Each had enough cable to climb 5,000 feet (1524 meters).

Lowe continued providing tactical reports to the Union troops. He provided information during the siege of Yorktown, Virginia, and in late April 1863, at Fredericksburg, he transmitted hourly reports on Confederate movements. During the battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia, Lowe continually transmitted information on enemy troop positions. Observations made during this battle proved to be crucial to the Union victory.

However, the balloon corps did not last until the end of the war. General George McClellan was relieved of his command in 1863, and Captain Cyrus Comstock, who was assigned to oversee the balloon corps, cut its funding and thus its effectiveness. Lowe was also accused of financial impropriety, and his pay was reduced. Lowe resigned from the balloon corps on May 8, 1863. By August 1863, the corps had disbanded.

Gas was plentiful in Washington but after inflation the transportation of the balloons from the city to the battlefields was too dangerous and time consuming. Thaddeus Lowe set out to invent a portable gas generating device that could be used anywhere. What he came up with was a lined wooden tank mounted on a wagon filled with some water and iron filings. This combination yielded hydrogen gas when doused with sulfuric acid. The horse drawn wagons were large and rectangular in shape and weighed about 1,000 pounds each. A total of twelve of these wagons were built to service the balloons.

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