Viewport: A Lesson from the Civil War
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, July 2011
"Viewport," by National Air and Space Museum director J.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air & Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum's ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the June/July 2011 issue of Air & Space.
As the Nation begins to reflect on the Civil War, 150 years after shots were fired at Fort Sumter, we at the National Air and Space Museum are also looking back to 1861, at a moment when history was made right in our front yard. On June 18, the Civil War had been under way for just two months. The Columbia Armory stood on the spot where our building now stands, with the Washington Gas Light Company located just to our east. The combination of open space in front of the armory and access to city gas next door led Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry to instruct Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe, one of the nation’s best known aeronauts, to inflate his balloon on this site.
It was Henry, Lowe’s advisor on earlier, long-distance flights, who urged the balloonist to offer his services to the government. The Secretary introduced him to President Abraham Lincoln on June 11, assuring Lincoln that Lowe was both knowledgeable and experienced. A week later, Lowe filled his balloon Enterprise at the gas works and made a tethered ascent in front of the armory. Accompanied by a telegrapher, the balloonist rose to 500 feet and dispatched the first telegraphic message ever sent from the air to the White House; the telegram informed Lincoln that from this aerial perch, an observer could see for 25 miles in every direction, including a fine view of the “girdle of encampments” that circled the capital. (Lowe’s binoculars are on display in the Museum.)
Afterward, Lowe walked to the White House for another talk with the president. Impressed, Lincoln agreed to support Lowe’s proposal to create the country’s first military aeronautical unit: a corps of balloonists who would perform aerial reconnaissance for Union commanders in the field.
Lowe and his balloonists would make hundreds of tethered ascents over the next two years. Coming under fire during the Peninsula campaign of 1862, at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Virginia, and in other battles and theaters of operation, they repeatedly demonstrated the value of aerial reconnaissance. A century and a half later, the ability to gather intelligence from above remains a critical element in the defense of the nation.
On June 11, 2011, NASM staff members will mark the anniversary with a Civil War Balloon Family Day in the Museum and on the Mall. There will be historical re-enactors, balloons, interpretive talks, and a host of activities for young and old. Our celebration will continue on June 17, when we host an evening symposium in our Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater, featuring talks by authorities on Civil War ballooning.
This summer we are also marking another historic occasion: the final mission in the U.S. space shuttle’s 30-year career. Soon we will welcome the orbiter Discovery to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. We look forward to helping visitors understand Discovery’s journey, just as we study the impact of a 19th century balloon flight.
J.R. Dailey is the director of the National Air and Space Museum.