Thursday, March 29, 2012

“That Infernal Balloon!” - Part One

As Professor Thaddeus Lowe and other aeronauts serving with the Union army made ascensions to reconnoiter rebel positions, draw maps of terrain and fortifications, count numbers of opposing troops, and otherwise gain important intelligence on the enemy, Confederate soldiers and officers felt a great deal of consternation as to how they would deal with their foes’ apparent advantage. Often the Confederate response was anything but subtle: blasting away at the balloons with whatever artillery and musketry that could be brought to bear; while other measures were quite clever, involving some ploy to fool the aerial observers.

In late August of 1861, Lowe began making daily ascensions in his new balloon Union, designed and built specifically for military use. Almost immediately after these flights began, Confederate artillery batteries in the area opened fire on the aerostat. One such battery was under the command of E.P. Alexander, a young southern officer whose name will come up a bit later in this story. This artillery fire was ineffective, however, in doing anything other than wasting ammunition. Many artillery crews were trained to find their targets by “zeroing in”—to do this one must observe where a previous shot strikes and correct the next shot to bring it closer to the target. Since no impact could be observed when firing at an object floating in the air, the gun crews could not zero in their shots. Another difficulty was the effects of gravity on shot—the artillerymen knew that their fire would fall in an arc, but many did not have a grasp of the mathematics needed to calculate the proper angle of fire. Some cannon crews would adopt the tactic of creating a “blanket” of fire through which an ascending or descending balloon would have to pass. While this practice was more logical, and did cause damage to troops and camps beyond the balloon, it never scored a hit.

Despite the lack of any direct hits to Union balloons, there were numerous close calls. There are quite a few reports of cordage and even the basket being struck or nicked by solid shot or shrapnel. In late 1861 the balloon Constitution was making observations at Budd’s Ferry near Washington, when Confederate batteries opened fire, shells exploding quite near to the craft. At the siege of Yorktown, Lowe wrote of a heavy Armstrong cannon that exploded because of the extreme angle of elevation its crew used in an attempt to shoot down the balloon. At the Battle of Fair Oaks (Seven Pines), the balloonist reported a projectile passing between the ropes just beneath the basket. During the same battle, Confederates employing the “blanket of fire” method missed the balloon, but landed shells less than 200 feet behind it. During the Battle of Fredericksburg, Lowe remembered a shell passing within 20 feet of his balloon.

This artillery fire did sometimes create havoc on the ground, though it may not have struck its intended target. The Army of the Potomac’s cavalry commander, General Stoneman complained to Lowe that the shelling of the balloons endangered and upset his horses. On another occasion, Lowe and Stoneman were talking outside of Lowe’s tent in the balloon camp when both men were showered by dirt kicked up by a shell targeting the balloon. It was reported during the Peninsula campaign that General Slocum’s cookhouse, located adjacent to the balloon camp was struck by similar indirect fire. General Heintzelman in his headquarters was nearly hit under similar circumstances. Also during that campaign a 64-pounder ball came within feet of killing General George B. McClellan (commander of the army) and General Fitz John Porter. The ball landed between two men sleeping in a nearby tent—both were miraculously unhurt. In the diary of a soldier of the 13th New Hampshire a story of artillery fire intended for a balloon ends with a fellow soldier being covered in filth when a cannon ball lands in the camp latrine he was supposed to be cleaning.

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