The “Air Force” of the Civil War

Article written by Jessica Goldstein for The Washington Post, June 8, 2011:

Enough about the Navy SEALs. This weekend, the Smithsonian will commemorate America’s first attempt at an air force.

In June 150 years ago, Thaddeus Lowe flew 500 feet into the air in front of President Abraham Lincoln. Lowe was an American “aeronaut,” and he took flight in a 19,000-cubic-foot balloon.

Lowe had stumbled on the idea of using lighter-than-air aircraft for war reconnaissance two months before, when his balloon had floated into South Carolina air space and came down in hostile territory. This inflatable flying machine, Lowe suggested to Lincoln, could be used by the Union Army to spy on Confederates during the Civil War.

The 150th anniversary of the idea of a Union Balloon Corps — the first air force in the United States — is being honored Saturday on the Mall, outside the National Air and Space Museum, the very ground from which Lowe’s flight took place. A near-replica of Lowe’s original will be displayed.

“You could see for 25 miles in every direction,” Tom Crouch, the Smithsonian’s curator for Lighter-Than-Air Aircraft, said of Lowe’s 1861 flight. “The balloon was tethered to the ground. . . . They hauled him down, still in the basket, and walked him down the Mall to the White House. Lincoln was fascinated.

“Without Lincoln’s support, I have no doubt there would not have been a balloon corps,” Crouch said. Air reconnaissance is “still one of the most important things you can do in military terms. . . . It all started with Thaddeus Lowe.”

From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., there will be presentations on Civil War-era espionage and, appropriately enough, ballooning on the Mall. A more air-conditioned experience, inside the museum, incorporates spy-themed docent-led and self-guided tours.

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