Monday, May 30, 2011

The Field Glasses and the "Yankee" Balloon

General Fitz John Porter's Field Glasses and the "Yankee" Balloon Episode

In 1862, as part of a new Union strategy to use gas-filled balloons both for surveillance and possible battle, it is General Porter who first scrambles into the basket of a gas-filled balloon, invented by New Hampshire native, Thaddeus Lowe. Porter made the first aerial drawings of Confederate camps at Yorktown using these field glasses. He made use of the surveying and drafting skills he learned at West Point. Note that the field glasses are well used, dented and bent, no doubt due to incidents such as the one on 2 April 1862, which are discussed below. The glasses were put on deposit at Manassas Battlefield by Porter’s daughter Eva in 1947. ( Courtesy of Manassas Battlefield National Park.)

Avidly supported by President Lincoln, who was intrigued by using balloons to spy on the enemy, the balloon was an important – though short-lived--vehicle for reconnaissance for the Union Army. The Union Army Balloon Corps was created, operated by the New Hampshire born aeronaut and balloonist, Thaddeus S.C. Lowe.

General Porter immediately recognized the benefits of balloon surveillance. At 7 am on April 12, 1862, the air of the Union camp just outside of Yorktown was tense and filled with cries of, “The balloon is loose!” In the distance, a hot air balloon floated out over the encampment and toward Yorktown, where the Confederates began firing at it. Porter, who wanted a better look at the enemy and their position, was stuck inside the basket, helpless and unarmed as he was fired upon. Although he began throwing the sand bags overboard, the ropes attached to the gas valve were tied up, about six feet above the basket and he could not control them. Lowe (who was fortunately at the scene) began shouting instructions to Porter. “Open the valve! Climb the netting and pull the valve rope!” The men below took up the call as well. Soon they saw Porter descending from above them. Having reached the rope, Porter opened the valve too much. Acting quickly, he saw a tree and took his chances, jumping into the branches, hanging haplessly tangled in the balloon, the gas filling his lungs. Even before he was safely on the ground, Porter, with his field glasses in hand, began recounting what he had learned of the enemy camp and positions. So well-known was this escapade that it is recounted on the Haven Park equestrian monument.

With scant training, the “Yankee Balloon” episode reveals much about Porter- clever, skilled, fearless with perhaps a touch of recklessness thrown in. It also reveals Porter’s calm and cool demeanor even under direct fire in an air balloon struggling to stay out of enemy terrain with a wind shift. Valor, heroism, courage under fire.

Robert Sneden, a mapmaker for the Union Army, recalled the danger of the incident:

Porter, fearing that he would be carried beyond to the James River unless he could descend, became desperate, climbed out of the car and gave the valve line a hard jerk, which opened the valve wide. It also made him lose his grip on the ropes and he fell into the basket, one half of his body hanging over the side with the balloon 2,000 feet above the earth.

1 comment:

  1. Visitors to the Porter exhibit -- and his statue in Haven Park, Portsmouth (a block from Strawbery Banke Museum) will see these very glasses depicted in one of the bronze panels at its base.

    The Mongolfier brothers in France are credited with being the first to have the idea of using hot air balloons for aerial observation. They made the first human flight on October 15, 1783; and by November 19, 1783 their first free flight had an army officer aboard.

    Thaddeus Lowe undoubtedly worked from their inspiration -- and 100 years ago June 5, 1861, Lowe arrived in Washington for an appointment with Secy of the Treasury Salmon Chase. He would demonstrate his fine-tuned aerial surveillance capability to Lincoln on June 18, 1861, taking a telegraph with him. His message to Lincoln from aloft read: "To the President of the United States Sir: This point of observation commands an area of nearly 50 miles in diameter. The city with its girdle of encampments presents a superb scene. I have pleasure in sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station and in acknowledging indebtedness for your encouragement for the opportunity of demonstrating the availability of the science of aeronautics in the service of the country." The next day Lowe had a letter from Lincoln and was authorized to form a balloon corps for the use of the army.

    Not only Porter but another Portsmouth-born solider Amiel Weeks Whipple (who had lived in the house now open to the public as Warner House) is recorded to flown in Lowe's balloons during the Civil War. Capt. Whipple was one of the officers to make aerial observations over Falls Church VA and found the new devise so useful he began contractual discussions with Lowe for the implementation of balloon surveillance.