Thursday, April 5, 2012

“That Infernal Balloon!” Part Two

Confederate forces did expend a significant amount of ammunition in trying to bring down the Union army’s balloons with cannon fire. However, other more clandestine methods were used to negate the advantage of aerial observations.

General P.G.T. Beauregard, in command of rebel troops in the area of Washington, D.C. from summer of 1861 to late winter of 1862 referred to the flying menaces as “damned infernal balloons,” and issued specific orders to counter their efforts. He ordered his men on several occasions to build extra fires at night—the balloonists would count camp fires in order to estimate Confederate troop numbers and this would exaggerate such determinations. At other times, rebel troops were ordered to build fewer fires or conceal their bivouacs in wooded areas, which would correspondingly fool the aerial observers into thinking there were fewer troops in the area. The commanding southern general also had his artillerymen camouflage their batteries from the air to conceal them from the aeronauts. Based on comparisons between Lowe’s observations and Confederate records, it appears that many of these deceptions were effective.

Other Confederate commanders had their men construct batteries of “Quaker guns.” These phony cannons were made from “various calibers of stovepipes,” and while some were identified correctly by Union observers, others seemed to have accomplished their task of misinformation. Specifically, balloon observers noted heavy guns in the rebel fortifications on Mason’s and Munson’s Hills outside of Washington. These were later reported to be Quaker guns.

The Confederates also employed their own balloons as a response to the northern aerostats. Beauregard ordered a balloon from a private supplier and though it did make one ascension, which was observed by Professor Lowe, it did not prove able to endure the hazards of army use. During the Peninsula campaign (Spring-Summer 1862), E.P. Alexander was given command of the Confederate balloon Gazelle. This balloon was also called the “silk dress balloon” because its envelope was constructed of a conglomeration of different bolts of silk fabric originally intended for making dresses. The Gazelle was used successfully during several engagements of the campaign, often drifting just across the battlefield from Professor Lowe and one of his balloons. In early July of 1862 the balloon was being towed on a barge that ran aground. Alexander and his crew were forced to evacuate. The Gazelle was captured by US ironclads Maratanza and the famed Monitor and cut into pieces which were given as souvenirs to various congressmen and even to Lowe himself.

During the Peninsula campaign, at least two Confederate spies were caught in attempts to sabotage Lowe’s balloons. After the war, a former rebel soldier wrote that he was another such spy. He claimed that after attempts to sneak snipers and small field artillery pieces close to Union lines to open fire on the balloons in the early morning had failed, his commanders had opted to send saboteurs behind Union lines. He, disguised as a civilian merchant, had gotten within inches of one of Lowe’s balloons and was in the process of getting out his pipe and a match (knowing very well that it would take but a small flame to ignite the hydrogen filling the envelope) before being accosted by a burly northern sergeant. He decided that discretion was the better part of valor and made his way eventually back to confederate lines, having failed in his task. No effort at sabotage ever saw success during the life of the aeronautics corps.

In reference to the effect the Union balloons had on Confederate actions and psyche, E.P. Alexander perhaps said it best, “We could never build another balloon, but my experience with this gave me a high idea of the possible efficiency of balloons in active campaigns. Especially did we find, too, that the balloons of the enemy forced upon us constant troublesome precautions in efforts to conceal our marches.”

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