Smithsonian recounts balloon flights of Civil War

Smithsonian recounts balloon flights of Civil War

The National Air and Space Museum will re-create a key moment in the nation's first attempt at an air force during the Civil War 150 years ago decades before the first airplane flight.

General Grant and Staff, Lookout Mountain, Tennessee




General Grant and Staff, Lookout Mountain, Tennessee


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In June 1861, Thaddeus Lowe flew 500 feet above the National Mall in a gas-filled balloon to show President Abraham Lincoln how balloons could be used to spy on the Confederates. Lowe's balloon, the Enterprise, remained tethered to the ground, and Lowe sent Lincoln the first telegram ever transmitted from the air.

"The flight was designed to draw Abraham Lincoln into the business," said Smithsonian flight historian Tom Crouch. "Lincoln was fascinated by technology."

Lowe's handlers then pulled the balloon close to the ground and guided it to the White House. The "aeronaut" was invited to stay and discuss its potential with the president. They talked into the early morning hours, according to historical accounts.

Lowe's flight eventually led to the creation of the Union Balloon Corps and the start of aerial espionage in the United States.

The idea came earlier in 1861 when Lowe launched a balloon flight from Cincinnati to South Carolina to try to raise interest in ballooning. Fort Sumter had just been fired on at the start of the war, though, and Lowe's balloon came down in enemy territory.

"Here was this Yankee" with a thick Northeast accent, Crouch said. "And they arrest him. They think he's a spy."

More about Civil War Ballooning here.

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