Land ~ Sea Discovery Group Staff
and historians alike tend to spend hours perusing old books and
letters searching for clues to the location of Confederate fortifications.
Troop movements are sometimes described but rarely pinpoint the
spots men might have rested for a few hours before or after a bloody
battle. Sometimes the diaries of Union and Confederate soldiers
are passed down generation to generation often describing the scenery,
the weather and the mood of the day. Although these can be of some
general help we must remember that many things change over the course
of one hundred and thirty some years.
Finding a map
in an old trunk or tucked away behind the drawer of a desk can bring
to the discoverer an unequaled thrill. In actuality though, maps
are great liars. The actual encampments described can often be hundreds
of feet away from spots marked on a map with an X. If only we could
have the vantage point of Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe when it
comes to inspecting the battlefields and the encampments of enemy
Professor T.S.C Lowe in his
was a balloonist and much more. He was an individual of insight
with an eye for the future. On the morning of April 20, 1861, seven
days after the surrender of Fort Sumter, Thaddeus Lowe was preparing
his balloon the Enterprise for an experimental flight. This flight
would prove that although the winds were blowing to the West he
could rise above them and use the upper air currents to maneuver
his balloon to the East. In proving this experiment he would be
able to raise funds and support for a Trans-Atlantic flight.
off, a reporter from the Cincinnati Daily Commercial pleaded with
Lowe to take with him copies of his newspaper. This would prove
from where the Professor had left on his enterprising flight that
day and accounts of the event. Lowe accepted and stuffed them into
the depths of the balloon's basket. Lowe who had attended an evening
party earlier that evening was still dressed in evening attire complete
with his black top hat. The winds were proper and he had to leave
right then to demonstrate his case. The balloon climbed to the Northwest
and then gradually as it hit the upper air currents, it turned to
the East. Telegraph reports from Lexington, Kentucky confirmed that
the balloon was indeed headed swiftly to the East.
The air stream
took him to heights of up to four miles and still propelling in
an easterly direction. Once over the Alleghenies the balloon dropped
a mile a minute and before long he was able to hear the roar of
cannon coming from below. He was unaware that they belonged to Virginians
celebrating their succession from the Union. When he reached an
area where things had quieted down Lowe ventured a decent to the
earth below. He calculated that he was somewhere in South Carolina.
He had traveled 800 miles in 9 hours. For the times this was an
Once upon the
ground he was greeted by farmers from the surrounding communities
carrying shot guns instead of pitchforks. "Shoot the Yankee!"
Was the greeting he received. They thought he was a Union spy as
he disembarked from the basket in his evening coat.
loaded him, his balloon, and apparatus into a wagon and left for
Unionville South Carolina. There he was herded in with "Yankee
abolitionists" being held in a hotel. The landlord of the hotel
recognized Professor Lowe from a previous balloon accession and
was quite aware of his scientific experiments. Together they attempted
to persuade the Confederate soldiers that Lowe was not a spy.
the Cincinnati newspapers describing the flight stashed in the bottom
basket. This firmed up his innocence and he was released. Because
of this ordeal he was considered one of the earliest prisoners of
war. The locals then treated him with a great deal more respect.
Not as much as he probably deserved but then after all he was a
Yankee. After a slight bit of fanfare Lowe was hustled onto a train
and 5 days later he arrived in Cincinnati. He traveled the same
distance a few days earlier in only 9 hours.
harrowing experience Professor Lowe shelved his Trans-Atlantic trip
and decided to offer his aeronautical skills to the government.
President Abraham Lincoln checked Professor Lowe's credentials and
after being assured he was the best person for the job, Lowe was
brought to Washington for a demonstration. The Professor took his
balloon up to a height of 500 feet and with the help of a battery
to provide current he then proceeded to telegraph a message to the
president using a Morse instrument.
The message read:
To his Excellency, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States
From this point of observation we command an extent of country nearly
fifty miles in diameter. I have the pleasure of sending you this
first telegram ever dispatched from an aerial station, and acknowledging
indebtedness to your encouragement for the opportunity of demonstrating
the availability of the service of aeronautics in the service of
the country. I am, Your Excellency's obedient servant,
T. S. C. Lowe
This aerial transmission was another great achievement by Lowe and
military leaders were quick to realize its importance. Lincoln gave
Lowe a note clearing the way to start the Aeronautic Corps.
Lowe was encountered at first with some resistance from General
Winfield Scott, "The Grand Old Man." It took a personal
visit from Lincoln to get the ball rolling again.
The war balloon at General McDowell's
headquarters preparing for reconnaissance. Engraving
from Harper's Weekly
Corps, as it came to be known, fought through vast amounts of military
red tape to get its job accomplished, but finally its main objective,
reconnaissance, was put to work. Lowe and his team found that they
were great targets for the confederate soldiers. Carl Sandberg wrote
that Lowe was "The most shot-at man in the war."
Lowe took draftsmen
up into the balloon with him so the army engineers could make better
maps. These maps would be of a great boon to relic hunters and historians
as their accuracy was impeccable. Previously the maps drawn of enemy
positions were greatly distorted.
Lowe used his
own apparatus and even paid the men in his service from his own
pocket in the beginning. The military shifted him from one branch
to another. From the Corps of Engineers, to Quartermaster, and then
to Signal Corps and back again. Finally after much pleading he received
funds to build five new much-needed balloons. The largest were the
Intrepid and the Union. They were 65 and 38 feet in diameter. Patriotic
women were recruited to do the sewing of more than 1200 yards of
India silk in making the balloons. The outlay to make each balloon
was around $1000 to $1200.00.
On one of his
early flights from Fort Corcoran Lowe describes gliding along Warrenton
Turnpike to Stone Bridge. He says, "The countryside is devastated
as if attacked by fire-breathing locusts." On a rise in front
of him were the ruins of two farmhouses, Stone House and Henry House,
both surrounded by the debris of battle. Confederate, and Federal
troops had fought back and forth here across Henry Hill. County
maps and bank land plot maps should show the locations of the farmhouses
and the areas destroyed by battle.
Later in the
war Thaddeus Lowe was also involved in spotting for artillery fire.
While Confederate troops lay sleeping he directed the artillery
fire that got them up and running away from Falls
Church. The Confederate batteries on Munson's Hill shot back at
the only thing they could see which was Professor Lowe's balloon.
When he arrived back at the base of operations General Porter congratulated
Lowe for the success of the flight's mission. Porter, pointing to
a large cannon hole in the bottom of Lowe's basket advised the Professor
to line his balloon with a sheet of metal. It was promptly done.
In time Lowe
came to recognize the rows of humps on distant hills as rows of
tents and by counting them, Generals like Joe Hooker who went up
more than once in the balloon, could calculate how many troops were
in the area. Low hanging clouds on the horizon were actually clouds
of dust kicked up by troop movements on the road. Judging by the
appearance and size of the clouds Lowe eventually could distinguish
how many men were marching, or if it was cavalry, or horses and
wagons. He learned what smoke was from rifle or cannon fire, and
what was trash burning compared to cooking dinner for the troops.
A balloon camp
called Camp Lowe was established at Edward's Ferry near Harpers
Ferry. Its duty was the protection of Washington on the Northwest.
At one point in the camps career two confederate spies were captured
that told of a $1000 gold reward and a commission was to be given
to the man that destroyed a balloon.
Professor Lowe is about to make
an ascension, on a reconnoitering expedition to Vienna,Virginia.
Engraving from Harper's Weekly
As the army
made its way to the Confederate capitol at Richmond, Professor Lowe
and General Stoneman got their first view of the city and it's surrounding
battle trenches. They looked down on it from a hill above the Chickahominy
River called Gaines Hill. Stoneman wanted it for his artillery and
Lowe for his balloons. The height of the hill was a definite advantage,
however the trees hid many of the rebel troops. Going aloft, Lowe
and Stoneman were able to push back the rebels but more importantly
noticed that it was at Mechanicsville that the Virginia Central
Railroad supplied the city of Richmond. The Union troops took Mechanicsville
and from their positions there they could see with telescopes into
the very streets of the capitol. The balloon Intrepid played a major
part in turning the attack of the Confederates at the battle of
Fair Oaks later that month by relaying the positions of the troops
to awaiting commanders in the field below. President Lincoln was
able to follow almost the entire battle as if he were there because
of the telegraph messages sent from the balloon.
A visitor arrived
one day to observe the balloon operations and Lowe simply not having
the time to deal with it turned away the young Count Ferdinand von
Zeppelin. It would have been his first balloon ride.
T. S. C. Lowe
also was the first person to propel an aeronautical device from
the deck of a ship while anchored in the Potomac River, therefore
in essence the first aircraft carrier.
Lowe was an
undeniable presence in many battle scenes of the Civil War. His
vision of aerial observations of enemy troop movements was a monumental
concept that has been continued now into the space age. Satellites
now have the ability to practically peek over our shoulders as we
work. Too bad they are not put to better use discovering shipwrecks
and lost cities.
The Great Incline up
to Mount Lowe visited by millions from 1893 until it's demise
came to Southern California after the war and had another vision.
It was an incline railroad that could transport local and worldly
tourists from the foothills of Altadena to the heights of Echo Mountain.
On July 4th, 1893 The Mt. Lowe Railroad officially took its first
passengers up the 62% grade incline to Echo Mountain. The tourists
were greeted at various stages of time by hotels, a zoo, and an
observatory. Later the Professor built an Alpine Division of the
railroad that wound around the mountain up to another resort 6000
feet up known as the Alpine Tavern. This area had tennis courts,
a fox farm, its own newspaper, and a miniature golf course. The
views of the valley below were spectacular. From a spot known as
Inspiration Point a visitor could see as far away as Catalina Island.
of visitors that came to its lofty heights from 1893 until it was
shut down completely in 1936 witnessed the vision of Thaddeus Lowe.
It was the Disneyland of its time bringing city folk and flatlanders
into the wilds of the San Gabriel Mountains. The Pacific Electric
Railroad eventually bought the entire complex and brought fares
down to a price that millions more could afford. It was a world-class
this area now known for its high winds and fires was destroyed piece
by piece. The windstorms literally blew away what fires did not
burn. Today the foundations of the buildings still remain. It is
a ghost town, if you will, overlooking the sprawling metropolis
of Los Angeles.
a balloon or from the peaks of a mountain top Thaddeus Lowe sought
to reach up to the clouds. It was his goal to improve his and others'
powers of observation of the things around us. His observations
of the enemy in the Civil War were invaluable. Also the sights he
saw from the top of Mt. Lowe were so astonishing he had to share
them with the rest of the earth, thereby opening his Mt. Lowe Railroad.
a treasure hunter or historian, in the search for relics or simple
information, should always get another perspective. Observation
from points on high often pay off with great rewards. Treasure hunters
should always try to observe from other angles the treasures that
they are seeking. In this particular case I discovered the Civil
War information while researching the Alpine Tavern on Mt. Lowe.
My research brought me from the mountains in sunny Southern California
to gliding in a balloon over Richmond. Who knows, perhaps some treasure
hunter in Richmond is following the balloons path to Mt. Lowe in
search of relics.
1. Mary Hoehling,
Thaddeus Lowe, America's One-Man Air Corps, Kingston House, 1958
2. Eugene B. Block, Above the Civil War, Howell-North Books, 1966
3. Carol Green Wilson, California Yankee, The Saunders Press, 1946.
4. Charles Seims, Mount Lowe Railway in the Clouds, Golden West