Sunday, November 13, 2011

Up, Up and Away: The Birth of the United States Air Force

When thinking about the Civil War and the United States Air Force the two never cross paths, right? Well they do believe it or not. Let me introduce you to the Union Army Balloon Corps or as they should be known, the United States Air Force. Today, when we look back at the Civil War we think about the Union and the Confederacy, the issues of slavery ans state's rights, Lincoln and Davis, the Battle of Gettysburg but never about the use of an air force. But the Union Army Balloon Corps was the brainchild of one man, Mr Thaddeus S.C. Lowe. Without him and his vision the use of aeronautics the Union may have not gained an upper hand over the Confederacy and the benefits of air superiority may have never been realized, well realized as soon.


Thaddeus Lowe was born in August of 1832 in the Jefferson Mills, New Hampshire. The Lowe family has a history of partaking in America's wars, his grandfather Levi, fought in the American Revolution and he father, Clovis was a drummer boy during the War of 1812. Now with the Civil War at had it was Thaddeus turn to serve his country. Lowe used his knowledge of science and experiences with the use of hot air balloons to play his part in the Union Army. Now how does one become "experienced" in flying a hot air balloon in the mid 19th century? Well by just being a straight up dare devil. Lowe studied wind patterns and how to use them to move through the sky. His first flight was in 1857, flying around Hoboken, New Jersey. He continued to improve his balloons and he first major advancement came in the Enterprise. After that Lowe set his aims at a transatlantic flight. His goal was to open a commercial service to ferry people from America to Europe and back. He created the City of New York (later to be known as the Great Western) and planned on setting of for Europe, however, due to a strong windstorm it never happened. In 1861 he tried to fly from Cincinnati to New York City, but was blown of course and wound up in the newly seceded state of Virginia where he was immediately arrested as a spy. After his release and return home a letter from Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase called for Lowe to report to Washington D.C. This would be Lowe's chance to partake in the Civil War but more importantly give birth to the Air Force


So an invite to the White House is one thing, but having to show off the technology which you are personally responsible for developing is a different story. Lowe took off from the White House front lawn and sent a telegraph to President Lincoln, not just any telegraph but the first one sent from an "aerial station." Lincoln was impressed and Lincoln wanted to see the value of his work in practice. So Lowe manned the first mission which happened to be the first battle of the Civil War, Bull Run. At the battle Lowe sailed up into the sky, about 500 feet, and reported Rebel movements back to the ground. However, the mission was successful but Lowe landed behind enemy lines. The search and rescue party sent for him was his wife, which arrived with a covered wagon in order to save the Enterprise and return it and Lowe back to D.C.  After this Lincoln said and I quote "Holy Moly!" ok maybe not but either way Lincoln gave Lowe the authority to create and command the Union Army Balloon Corps.


With the Corps established and Lowe as Chief Aeronaut the Union Army contracted reconnaissance to them. The first job for the Corp was the Peninsula Campaign. During this campaign Lowe used the balloons, Constitution, Washington and Intrepid. Lowe had recruited several other balloonist who he found fit for duty. He employed he father Clovis, Captain Dickinson (a steamboat captain), the Allen brothers (some of Lowe's competitors), and balloonists Eben Seaver, J.B. Strakweather, William Paullin, John Steiner and Ebenezer Mason. Together these men were the first fly boys of the U.S. Air Force. Oh yea and they were paid a whopping $3 a day. But now that the Corps had members it was time to strategically place the balloons. Lowe sent his balloons to several Union stations: Fort Monroe (Washington D.C.), Camp Lowe (Harper's Ferry), Yorktown (Virginia) and the Virginia Peninsula. Upon request Lowe sent one of his smaller balloons, the Eagle, to the Union forces heading towards the Mississippi River. Lowe had tried to sent up his Corps in places the Union Army would most need their assistance. It will be seen that their reconnaissance will  be key to the success of the Union Army.


Lowe's first taste of military life came on May 18, 1863 when the first Union Army Balloon Corps camp was set up at Gaines' Farm outside of  Richmond. It was here that Lowe and his team reported on movements of Rebel forces going and coming from the Confederate capital. The first battle the UABC reported on was the Battle of Seven Pines, where they informed the Union leadership about Rebel troop build up, the forming of battle formations, when the Confederate bases were unoccupied, where Union reinforcements should go and where repairs should be made to Union defenses. However, Lowe's reports were not listened to and Union troops went elsewhere. Later, Lowe ordered that the Intrepid be put into action. As the same reports continued during the battle, the Union leadership listened to the reports and sent reinforcements to scatter the remaining Rebels and repair damaged areas of the Union camps and defenses. Actually the Union leaders saw that Lowe was 100% right and a witness said of Lowe, "You, sir, have saved the day!" The value of the UABC was so visible that the Confederates tried to establish a similar group. Unfortunately for them, they lack both the necessary equipment and skilled aeronauts. But the UABC was to be short lived and for unseen reasons. But during the beginning of the Civil War their work and reports were of great importance not just to the Union but to the developing of an Air Force.


During the Pennsylvania Campaign Lowe, like many others, fell victim to malaria. It was this sickness that ended the UABC. With the absence of Lowe the UABC was put on the back burner. Well it was that and that the Rebels had gained a little momentum and was forcing the Army of the Potomac to retreat back behind Union lines. With that retreat the UABC's materials were split up amongst different division and the rest put into storage. Upon Lowe's return he saw nothing left of his UABC and was forced into joining the Army. Lowe never saw any military action at either battle he was activated for. As for the UABC, Lowe never gave up on it and it's value. He tried on several occasions to revive the program but the Union military leaderships never really understood it's important to military strategy. It was regarded by the Union troops as a sideshow, not meant for military service and a suicide mission.  The only people, aside from Lowe, that saw any value in the UABC was the Union generals for the simple fact that the reports from the air gave them an advantage over the Rebels. The UABC would eventually be put under the control of the Army Corps of Engineers, which pushed Lowe and his team out. The original aeronauts were replace with rank and file men who took direction better then Lowe. As of August 1, 1863 the UABC was officially disbanded.  It wouldn't be till after the Civil War that the UABC would have any value placed on it, and it would be the source for innovation of air technology in military actions.


America is well know for it's innovative spirit, so from the use of a hot air balloon in the middle of the Civil War the only direction for air technology was to go up (no pun intended). After the war the idea of airships in the military lay dormant until the 1890s when the United States Army Signal Corp was created. Airships got a kick in the pants with the creation of motorized propulsion and mechanical steering. This would eliminate the problems Lowe had of always landing behind enemy lines and would allow for more control and better reconnaissance. The first test for the USASC was during the Spanish American War where it showed much promise for the military, as did Lowe's UABC. The biggest influence the UABC had was not on an American but on another pioneer of aeronautics, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. Yes, that's right Zeppelin as in the Hindenburg Zeppelin. It was from Lowe that Zeppelin saw the future and potential of aeronautics and then grew the field from his Zeppelin Airship Company. So we can see that one man's invention leads to another mans dream, which then becomes a reality. Without Lowe, there would be no Zeppelin and with out Zeppelin there would be no Hugo Eckener and so on and so forth up until today with the men and women working on creating the next generation of military air crafts.


As you can see, we have come a long way from a hot air balloon. But it was those hot air balloons that Lowe used during the Civil War which pushed aeronautics into the military field. Lowe however would never receive the credit he is due. Lowe would retire from after his services to the Union and build the Pasadena & Mount Wilson Railroad, operate his on water and gas company, found a bank and run several ice houses. After all this Lowe kind of faded into history. However, Lowe was inducted in the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame but I feel he needs a little more credit given to his name. Most people would credit the Wright brothers with creating the idea of aeronautics and military since they did invent the air plane. Yet it is Lowe that bridged the gap between the two. With his ingenuity and vision of using the hot air balloon during battles the idea of using aeronautics in military operations would have been delayed until the early 20th century. Lowe deserves to be credited not just for his advances in aeronautics but for being the United States first fly boy. The United States Air Force is said to have been activated in 1947 but I think it is Lowe that started it, one hundred years prior and should be considered the first great pilot, for he was the first one to "Cross into the Blue."

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