Memoirs of Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, Chief of the Aeronautic Corps of the Army of the United States During the Civil War: My Balloons in Peace and War (Book Review)

6/12/2006 • Ambrose Burnside, Book Reviews

Reviewed by Keith Miller
By Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, edited by Michael Jaeger and Carol Lauritzen
Edwin Mellen Press, 238 pages

Thaddeus Lowe, a pioneer in wartime aviation, wrote his memoirs in 1911, but a serious accident cut short his efforts to publish his account of his contribution to the Union war effort. By bringing My Balloons in Peace and War into print at last, Michael Jaeger and Carol Lauritzen have provided a fascinating window into the Civil War in the clouds.

The first third of the book is devoted to Lowe’s prewar ballooning adventures. His descriptions of trying to cross the Atlantic in 1859 and 1860 show the breadth of his imagination. In April 1861, he made a test flight from Cincinnati to South Carolina to demonstrate easterly winds, and in the process found himself whipping along at speeds of over 100 miles per hour, flying at freezing altitudes of more than two miles over the Smoky Mountains. When he landed in South Carolina, he was almost shot as a spy, and his antipathy toward what he described as ignorant, cowardly Southerners spills from his narrative.

Having witnessed Southern preparations for war, Lowe offered his services to the U.S. War Department. His enthusiasm is evident as he describes winning the support of Abraham Lincoln. Lowe’s creativity was channeled into wartime innovations such as airborne telegraphs, the ability to indirectly aim artillery, the development of waterborne balloons, and low-cost hydrogen generation in the field. Lowe’s greatest contributions were made up through the end of the Antietam campaign, while he had the support of Union commanders. His descriptions of flights accompanied by general officers show the personal interest that the senior command of the Army of the Potomac took in this technology during that period.

After Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s removal, Maj. Gens. Ambrose Burnside and then Joseph Hooker allowed Lowe to be controlled by the military bureaucracy. Lowe describes his frustration with the cost-obsessed bureaucrats who at last drove him to resign after the Battle of Chancellorsville. In the course of describing his own struggles, Lowe provides fascinating illustrations of how lower-level officers managed to deflate the hopes of their superiors.

Written long after the war, Lowe’s work contains some minor errors and self-promotion. In addition, in the later chapters — dealing with the period after his resignation — Lowe relies heavily on previously published reports and articles rather than his own experiences.

Charles Evans’ recent War of the Aeronauts and F. Stansbury Haydon’s 60-year-old Military Ballooning During the Early Civil War are both excellent accounts of Civil War ballooning. But neither provides the immediacy or personal perspective of Lowe’s work.