Tag Archives: Thaddeus Lowe

Lee Begins Moving North

June 3, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee directed his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to begin its second invasion of the North.

Rumors had circulated among the Federals that Lee was planning to move his army out of Fredericksburg. Major General Erasmus D. Keyes, commanding a Federal division operating on the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers, reported on the 2nd:

“It seems apparent from the rumors that reach me that a movement of rebel troops is going on from south to north, and that the idea prevails over the lines that an invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania is soon to be made. I have heard nothing definite, but all the rumors concur to produce the impression stated.”

Keyes’s Federals, being just 30 miles from Richmond, could obtain important information from the Confederate capital quickly. The Federals also observed Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s Confederates heading north from Suffolk to rejoin Lee’s army. Keyes soon received orders to abandon the Peninsula and move northwest.

Gen Robert E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Lee had indeed been planning to move north, but he was reluctant to start while Keyes’s Federals hovered within striking distance of Richmond, which was lightly guarded. When Lee learned that Keyes was leaving, he began preparing his movement in earnest. He rejected Longstreet’s suggestion to take the offensive in Virginia, arguing that at best the Confederates would only push the Federals back to their impregnable defenses at Washington. Invading the North was the only option.

Lee’s army now numbered nearly 80,000 men, the largest since the Seven Days Battles nearly a year ago. However, there were many new officers, including two new corps commanders, and many among them had never been battle-tested in their new roles. But as he had done so often before, Lee hoped to take advantage of his opponents’ unwillingness to seize the initiative.

Lee issued marching orders on the 3rd, with Longstreet’s First Corps moving out of Fredericksburg toward Culpeper Court House, the first stop on the invasion route. Major General George Pickett’s division within Longstreet’s corps would stay at Hanover Junction, where it could either join Lee’s army on the march or move south and defend Richmond in case of attack.

Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps would follow Longstreet, a division at a time. Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps would stay at Fredericksburg to keep the Federals across the Rappahannock River occupied. Lee planned to march into the fertile Shenandoah Valley and then cross the Potomac River into the North. Colonel E. Porter Alexander, commanding Longstreet’s artillery, later wrote:

“I recall the morning vividly. A beautiful bright June day, and about 11 a.m., a courier from Longstreet’s headquarters brought the order. Although it was only a march to Culpeper Court House, we knew that it meant another great battle with the enemy’s army, which still confronted ours at Fredericksburg.”

Alexander noted “the pride and confidence I felt in my splendid battalion, as it filed out on the fields in the road, with every chest and ammunition wagon filled, and every horse in fair order, and every detail fit for a campaign.” The Army of Northern Virginia was much more polished than it had been when it invaded Maryland last September. There were far fewer stragglers, as army morale had never been higher. Most men had been recently fitted with new uniforms, shoes, and equipment.

The Army of the Potomac, camped across from Fredericksburg between Aquia Creek and Falmouth, showed no signs of aggression. Major General Joseph Hooker, commanding the army, noted the Confederate movement but still did not know of Lee’s plan. However, he received intelligence from a Mr. G.S. Smith, a spy providing information to Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton, commanding the Federal Cavalry Corps:

“There is one thing that looks very apparent to me, and that is that this movement of General Lee’s is not intended to menace Washington, but to try his hand again toward Maryland, or to call off your attention while General (Jeb) Stuart goes there.”

Pleasonton added to Smith’s message: “It is my impression the rebel army has been weakened by troops sent west and south, and that any performance of Stuart’s will be a flutter to keep us from seeing their weakness.” Pleasonton was wrong.

When Hooker received word that night that Confederates were poised to cross the Rappahannock, he ordered Major General George G. Meade’s V Corps, guarding the river crossings on the right flank, to be on alert. He then ordered the rest of the army to prepare to mobilize at any time.

During the night, Federal pickets reported seeing large campfires on the Confederate side of the Rappahannock. This indicated that troops were burning what they could not bring with them before embarking on a general movement. Early on the 4th, Federals noted seeing fewer Confederate pickets than normal, and those previously on duty “were replaced near here by cripples.”

The divisions of Ewell’s corps began following Longstreet out of Fredericksburg on the 4th, the same day that Major General John Bell Hood’s division of Longstreet’s corps arrived at Culpeper Court House. Only Hill’s corps remained in the defenses, with the Federals showing little activity at Falmouth or on Stafford Heights across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg.

Professor Thaddeus Lowe, chief of aeronautics for the Federal army, ascended several observation balloons along the Federal line to try observing Confederate positions across the river. On the right, observers reported seeing infantry and artillery moving out around 6 a.m. Federals in a balloon overlooking Fredericksburg noted similar activity in the defenses west of town.

When Hooker learned that Stuart’s Confederate cavalry was near Culpeper, he dispatched Pleasonton’s 11,000 horsemen to confront him near Brandy Station. Hooker also directed Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps to conduct a reconnaissance in force to determine whether Lee’s movement was a feint or a legitimate northern thrust.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 294; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 14, 16; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18977; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 290-91; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9285; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 447; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 304; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5684-96; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 361-62; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 648, 651; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 286, 307-08

Northern Virginia: The Campaign Begins

April 26, 1863 – Major General Joseph Hooker issued marching orders for the Army of the Potomac to begin a new campaign against General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg.

Gen R.E. Lee and Maj Gen J. Hooker | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

As each day went by, pressure increased on Hooker to launch an offensive. His first plan had been thwarted by rain, northern dissatisfaction with the war effort continued mounting, and 27,000 Federal troops would leave the army when their enlistments expired in May. Hooker needed to strike quickly, especially now that part of Lee’s army under Lieutenant General James Longstreet had been detached to take Suffolk.

While Hooker continued finalizing his revised plan, small Federal units operated at Kelly’s Ford and the Rappahannock Bridge north of Fredericksburg, and Federals raided Port Royal south of Fredericksburg two days later. Confederate spies informed Lee that all of Hooker’s rear units had been brought up to join the main army. Lee put his army on alert that a new Federal offensive was about to begin.

Nearly two weeks of rain finally ended on the 25th, and warm weather soon dried the roads. Hooker’s plan began falling into place. Major General George Stoneman’s cavalry would continue its mission to cut Lee’s communication and supply lines, while the infantry would split into three sections:

  • One section would march north along the Rappahannock, cross both that river and the Rapidan, and attack Lee’s left flank and rear
  • One section would cross the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg and launch a diversionary attack on that town
  • One section would stay in reserve, poised to reinforce either of the other two as needed

On Sunday the 26th, Hooker assigned the first infantry section to start marching north the next day. It consisted of three corps:

  • Major General Oliver O. Howard’s XI Corps
  • Major General Henry W. Slocum’s XII Corps
  • Major General George G. Meade’s V Corps

These corps were chosen because they were farthest from Lee’s army and thus could best avoid detection. They were to arrive at Kelly’s Ford no later than 4 p.m. on the 28th. They would then cross the Rappahannock, turn south, and then cross the Rapidan at Ely’s and Germanna fords. From there they would take the Orange Turnpike to Chancellorsville, a small village eight miles west of Lee near a patch of dense undergrowth called the Wilderness.

Stoneman’s cavalry would cross even further up the Rappahannock, “without discovering itself to the enemy.” Then, after the first infantry section was upon Lee’s left and rear, the second section would begin demonstrating in front of Fredericksburg. This section also consisted of three corps:

  • Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps
  • Major General John J. Reynolds’s I Corps
  • Major General Daniel E. Sickles’s III Corps

Major General Darius N. Couch’s II Corps would form the third section. Most of Couch’s men would follow the first section, while a division stayed behind to join the demonstration.

Hooker had 138,387 effectives while Lee had no more than 62,500. This was the most numerically inferior that Lee had been since the day before the Battle of Antietam. Nevertheless, he still looked to take the offensive because he knew that staying on defense would not drive the Federals out of Virginia or win Confederate independence.

Hooker employed strict secrecy with his plans. He explained his reasoning to Major General John J. Peck, commanding the Federal garrison under siege at Suffolk, who had asked Hooker for help:

“I have communicated to no one what my intentions are. If you were here, I could properly and willingly impart them to you. So much is found out by the enemy in my front with regard to movements, that I have concealed my designs from my own staff, and I dare not intrust them to the wires, know as I do that they are so often tapped.”

Hooker’s first infantry section began moving out on the 27th as scheduled. The men left their winter quarters at Falmouth under a slow rain. To avoid alerting the Confederates across the river, the men marched in silence, and bands were not allowed to play. Engineers laid pontoon bridges at Kelly’s Ford, and the Federals crossed without incident.

President Abraham Lincoln, anxious for news, wrote, “How does it look now?” Hooker replied, “I am not sufficiently advanced to give an opinion. We are busy. Will tell you all soon as I can, and have it satisfactory.” The army executed the first part of Hooker’s plan with precision and skill.

Lee, who still could not guess Hooker’s objective, began fearing that his force may not be up to the challenge. He wrote President Jefferson Davis, “I feel by no means strong, and from the condition of our horses and the amount of our supplies, I am unable even to act on the defensive as vigorously as circumstances may require.”

When Longstreet requested that the rest of his corps be sent to him at Suffolk, Lee refused because he needed the men to fend off Hooker. Lee advised, “As regards your aggressive movement upon Suffolk, you must act according to your good judgment. If a damaging blow could be struck there or elsewhere of course it would be advantageous.” Longstreet’s main mission had been to gather supplies for Lee’s army, but it was now turning into a quest to capture Suffolk.

On the 28th, Stoneman’s cavalry crossed the Rappahannock and began riding south to disrupt Lee’s lines. Yesterday’s slow rain intensified, threatening to slow the infantry march. Hooker arrived at Morrisville as the troops moved south of the Rappahannock, where he sent a messenger to Slocum: “The general desires that not a moment be lost until our troops are established at or near Chancellorsville. From that moment all will be ours.”

Major General Jeb Stuart, commanding the Confederate cavalry, informed Lee that “a large body of infantry and artillery was passing up the river.” But Lee still did not know if this was an attack or a feint.

That night, the Federal march was back on schedule. Hooker directed Professor Thaddeus Lowe, army chief of aeronautics, to use an observation balloon “to see where the enemy’s campfires are. Someone acquainted with the position and location of the ground and of the enemy’s forces should go up.” Meanwhile, Lincoln continued asking for details on the advance. He wired Hooker’s chief of staff, Major General Daniel Butterfield, “Where is Gen. Hooker? Where is Sedgwick? where is Stoneman?”

Back at Fredericksburg, Hooker’s second infantry section, led by Sedgwick, prepared to begin demonstrating in Lee’s front. Engineers laid pontoon bridges, and the Confederates on the heights south and west of town prepared their defenses. Bells rang in the Fredericksburg Episcopal Church to alarm the Confederates. But it was becoming increasingly clear that the main Federal attack would take place somewhere else.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17734-44; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 278-79; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9243; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 260, 265-68; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 286; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5302-14; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 118-21; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 342; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 639; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 202-03; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 127-29

The Battle of Seven Pines: Day One

May 31, 1862 – Confederates attacked the Federals on the south side of the Chickahominy River, but poor coordination prevented them from accomplishing their main goal of destroying the enemy.

By the morning of the 31st, troops in the front lines of Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac were within six miles of Richmond, with the city’s church steeples visible in the distance. However, the Chickahominy divided McClellan’s 110,000-man army, with three corps north of the river and two to the south. And pouring rains had swelled the waterway, making it dangerously difficult for the two wings to unite if needed.

For the Confederate army, General Joseph E. Johnston had 74,000 men, but he reported just 62,696 effectives. He planned to send two-thirds of that number to attack the Federal wing isolated south of the Chickahominy, with General Erasmus D. Keyes’s IV Corps in front and III Corps under General Samuel P. Heintzelman in reserve. Most of Keyes’s Federals were positioned near Fair Oaks Station to the north and Seven Pines to the south.

The massive Confederate mobilization began at dawn, catching the attention of Richmond residents. Many followed the army to see the action, but that action would be delayed several hours. Johnston did not inform anyone of his plans, which required a rigid timetable and skilled coordination to execute. But they were bungled from the start.

Major General James Longstreet was supposed to lead the Confederate left (or north) wing down the Nine Mile road to attack Federals at Fair Oaks and Seven Pines. But he misunderstood Johnston’s verbal orders and instead went down the Williamsburg road, the same road taken by Major General D.H. Hill’s Confederates in the center. This not only jammed traffic on the road, but it greatly narrowed the Confederates’ attacking front.

Moreover, Major General Benjamin Huger’s Confederates were supposed to support Hill’s right, but Johnston merely ordered Huger to “be ready for action.” Huger took this to mean that he should stay in reserve until called upon, but Johnston wanted him to advance with Longstreet and Hill. Thus, Hill advanced unsupported, and Huger never received a specific order to commit his men to the action.

In addition, muddy roads made marching harder than expected, maps were inadequate, troops got lost in the dense woods, and officers got confused because of Johnston’s secrecy. Johnston also failed to establish that Longstreet was to command the operation, even though Major Generals Gustavus W. Smith and Huger outranked him. All these factors worked to completely upset the timetable.

As the Confederates tried untangling themselves on the road, and while Longstreet and Huger argued over who the senior commander was, Hill grew tired of waiting and ordered his men to attack at 1 p.m. Struggling through swamps and thick woods, Hill’s troops slammed into the Federals’ front line led by Brigadier General Silas Casey’s inexperienced 6,000-man division, one mile west of Seven Pines.

Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The initial attack consisted of just Hill’s four brigades, not the 13 total brigades of Hill, Longstreet, and Huger as envisioned. Nevertheless, the Confederates made headway as Casey’s line began buckling. Before Keyes could send Casey reinforcements, the Confederates captured a redoubt and the Federals were forced to retreat. Federal Brigadier General Henry M. Naglee led a bayonet charge that temporarily stalled the Confederate advance and enabled the rest of the Federals to fall back.

Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, commanding the U.S. Army Balloon Corps, reported at 2 p.m. from his observation balloon that Confederates were advancing in battle formation. Lowe continued telegraphing details on the battle to McClellan’s headquarters throughout the day. Thirty minutes later, Heintzelman informed McClellan that a battle had begun, but he had not received any word from Keyes on whether he should bring up reinforcements. Heintzelman soon began sending his men to the front as Keyes tried shoring up his defenses.

Johnston, two and a half miles in the Confederate rear, was not aware that the battle had begun because an atmospheric phenomenon called an “acoustic shadow” prevented him from hearing the sound of firing. General Robert E. Lee, farther in the rear, had to come up and tell Johnston that fighting was taking place. Then, Johnston received a message from Longstreet around 4 p.m. asking for reinforcements. Johnston responded by leading three of Brigadier General W.H.C. Whiting’s reserve brigades down the Nine Mile road toward Fair Oaks Station.

About a half hour later, Hill, now reinforced by some of Longstreet’s brigades, approached the second Federal defense line. This consisted of Casey’s remnants, Brigadier General Darius N. Couch’s division from IV Corps, and Brigadier General Philip Kearny’s division from III Corps. The Confederate attacks resumed, but they lacked proper coordination as men were sent piecemeal into the fray.

Hill directed Colonel Micah Jenkins to lead four regiments around the Federal right flank, forcing them to fall back about a mile and a half past Seven Pines. There they established a third defense line, and with more reinforcements arriving, the Federals stopped the Confederate advance and fighting began dying down in that sector around 6 p.m.

To the north, Johnston directed Whiting’s Confederates to attack Keyes’s right flank near Fair Oaks. By this time, Major General Edwin V. Sumner, commanding II Corps north of the Chickahominy, received word from McClellan to stand ready to cross the river and join the fight. Instead of just standing ready, Sumner ordered Brigadier General John Sedgwick’s division to cross the flooded waterway.

Sumner instructed Sedgwick to use the partly submerged Grapevine Bridge, the only available bridge, to cross. When engineers warned Sumner that a crossing was impossible, Sumner snapped, “Impossible? Sir, I tell you I can cross! I am ordered!” The men and horses crossed safely, with the bridge collapsing after the last man made it over.

By the time Whiting’s men arrived, the Federal right was reinforced. The Confederates launched several attacks but made no headway as casualties mounted. Three of Whiting’s four brigade commanders were lost; Confederate Brigadier General Wade Hampton was wounded, and Confederate Brigadier General J.J. Pettigrew was wounded and captured. On the Federal side, Brigadier General Oliver O. Howard was wounded twice, resulting in the amputation of his arm.

Johnston watched the action with his staff atop a nearby ridge, and at 7 p.m. he decided to suspend the attacks until next morning. He was then hit simultaneously by a bullet in his shoulder and shrapnel from an exploding shell in his chest and legs. Johnston fell from his horse, severely wounded and unconscious. He sustained a broken shoulder and broken ribs.

President Jefferson Davis and Lee, who had ridden to the front, saw Johnston being carried off, and Davis offered him words of encouragement. Johnston’s wounds were initially assessed as mortal, but he survived. He wrote in his official report: “Had Major-gen Huger’s division been in position and ready for action when those of Smith, Longstreet, and Hill moved, I am satisfied that Keyes’ corps would have been destroyed instead of merely defeated.” Huger’s Confederates never took part in the action.

Army command passed to G.W. Smith, who was plagued by illness and indecision. When Davis asked Smith for his plans that night, Smith said he had none until he received more information from the front. In the meantime, he offered three options: hold his ground, withdraw, or attack.

Choosing the second option, Smith began withdrawing the Confederates from the field. But then he reconsidered and resolved to renew the fight the next morning. Unimpressed, Davis told Lee as the two men rode back to the capital, “General Lee, I shall assign you to the command of this army. Make your preparations as soon as you reach your quarters. I shall send you the order when we get to Richmond.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 76-78; Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 138-45, 155-58; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 147, 149; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (31 May 1862); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13765; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 177-78; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7504; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 451; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 160-61; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3537; Kallmann, John D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 400-01; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 199, 227-28; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 218-19; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 461; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 411; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 571; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 668; Wikipedia: Battle of Seven Pines

Testing New Federal Technology

June 24, 1861 – Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe ascended in a balloon to demonstrate the usefulness of aerial military reconnaissance, and J.D. Mills demonstrated the “Union Repeating Gun,” forerunner to the modern machine gun.

Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Thaddeus Sobieski Coulincourt Lowe, or “Professor” Lowe to most, was a scientist and showman who had experimented with balloons since the 1850s. Earlier this year, a balloon flight from Cincinnati to Washington got caught in a wind current and took him to South Carolina instead. State authorities arrested him on spy charges; locals thought he was a demon 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 June 17, Lowe and a small group demonstrated a tethered balloon named Enterprise to President Lincoln and other officials. The balloon ascended 500 feet above the Washington defenses, with a War Department telegraph line connecting Enterprise to the White House lawn. Lowe wired: “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.

General Irvin McDowell, preparing to invade northern Virginia, requested that Lowe use his balloon to reconnoiter Confederate positions over the Potomac River from Washington. Lowe ascended on June 23, but winds picked up and nothing could be seen except dark clouds of dust from enemy cavalry. Lowe tried again that evening, but he could still see nothing, not even enemy campfires.

Nevertheless, the Washington Sunday Morning Chronicle reported on Professor Lowe’s ascent the next day: “No doubt (Confederate) 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.”

Lowe tried again on the 24th, and this time the weather had much improved. 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, which was the forerunner of the modern machine gun.

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Sources

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 147; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 51-53; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 38-40; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 86-87; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 451-52