Thaddeus Sobieski Coulincourt Lowe, or “Professor” Lowe to most, was a scientist and showman who had experimented with aerial balloons since the 1850s. Earlier this year, the professor’s balloon flight from Cincinnati to Washington got caught in a wind current that took him to South Carolina instead. State authorities arrested him on spy charges; locals thought he was a demon descending from above. He was soon released and sent back north.
Lowe had been summoned to Washington by Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, and the War Department wanted to see what Lowe’s balloons could do for reconnoitering enemy positions. On the 17th, Lowe and a small group demonstrated a tethered balloon named Enterprise to President Abraham Lincoln and other officials. The balloon ascended 500 feet above the Washington defenses, with a War Department telegraph line connecting the Enterprise to the White House lawn.
Lowe sent a message below: “This point of observation commands an area of nearly 50 miles in diameter. The city, with its girdle of encampments, presents a superb scene.” Lowe’s balloon became practical with his invention of a gas generator that could be transported by horse-drawn wagons to inflate balloons in the field; previously balloons had to be tied to stationary gas mains. A tank filled with water and iron filings produced hydrogen gas when combined with sulfuric acid.
In preparation for his invasion of northern Virginia, Major General Irvin McDowell asked Lowe to use his balloon to reconnoiter Confederate positions over the Potomac River from Falls Church, Virginia. Lowe and an artist ascended on the 23rd, but winds picked up and nothing could be seen except dark clouds of dust from the enemy cavalry. Lowe tried again that night, but he could still see nothing, not even enemy campfires.
Whether or not Lowe had been seen by Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard is unknown, but according to the Washington Sunday Morning Chronicle: “No doubt General Beauregard has looked up on the high position of Professor Lowe with considerable amazement. All his far-reaching guns will fail to reach the messenger, who, from his cloudy seat, spies out the weak points of the traitor’s nest.”
The weather improved on the 24th, and Lowe tried another ascension. Major Leonard Colburn, a cartographer, accompanied Lowe and sketched various waterways, buildings, and roads in what could have been the first instance of aerial “photography.”
Several Federal officers who had expressed skepticism about balloon reconnaissance, including McDowell, changed their minds when they saw the map sketches. McDowell wrote: “I have not been much of a convert to ballooning in military operations, but the last ascent… convince(s) me that a balloon may at times greatly assist military movements.” The U.S. Balloon Corps was created for battlefield reconnaissance as a result, and rumors quickly spread through the Federal military that the Confederacy was working to develop balloons of their own.
This new technology fascinated President Lincoln, as did a new type of gun demonstrated that same day. Lincoln observed the experimental firing of a rapid-firing weapon developed by J.D. Mills of New York (although Mills later fought Edward Nugent and William Palmer for the patent). Mills demonstrated “the Union Repeating Gun… An Army in six feet square” in the hayloft of Hall’s carriage shop across Pennsylvania Avenue from the Willard Hotel.
The device, mounted on a two-wheel artillery carriage, had one barrel that was fed by a revolving, square hopper holding .58-caliber paper cartridges in steel jackets. Turning the crank moved the cartridges through the machine and into the gun barrel. Lincoln, who was allowed to fire the weapon, said it reminded him of a coffee mill, and that became the gun’s nickname.
The next day, Mills again demonstrated his “Coffee Mill” gun, this time at the Washington arsenal in front of Lincoln, three cabinet members, five generals, and the governor of Connecticut. Lincoln soon became convinced that the gun could be effective in guarding fortifications and bridges around the capital. Major General Joseph K.F. Mansfield, commanding the Washington defenses, requested several of Mills’s guns, but Brigadier General James W. Ripley, chief of ordnance, would not place the order without more testing. Ripley feared this new technology, unaware that it would be the forerunner of the modern machine gun.
- Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Longacre, Edward G. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.