Civil War Balloon Brigade Rises Again

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To help union troops scout during the Civil War, President Lincoln signed off on a plan to create a volunteer balloon brigade. A commemoration at the National Mall honored the event on Saturday, complete with a gas-filled balloon and period dress. Allison Keyes reports.


One hundred and fifty years ago this month, a man named Thaddeus Lowe demonstrated to President Abraham Lincoln that gas-filled balloons could be used for surveillance in the Civil War. Yesterday, a crowd gathered on the National Mall to watch a reenactment of an event so historic that balloons are still being used today by U.S. troops to spy on their adversaries.

NPR's Allison Keyes was there.

ALLISON KEYES: As children gaped at the silvery flaccid balloon lying on the grass along with its netting and a basket draped with red white and blue bunting, a brisk man in a spiffy black outfit stepped up to introduce himself.

LYDEN: (as Professor Thaddeus Lowe) I'm Professor Thaddeus Lowe and I was the commander of the Balloon Corps in the Army of the Potomac in 1861.

KEYES: That year Lowe flew 500 feet above the National Mall in a tethered gas- filled balloon. And as Smithsonian senior curator Tom Crouch explains, Lowe saw a lot.

TOM CROUCH: What he told Lincoln was that he can see for 25 miles in any direction and he can see the camps, military camps, that had been laid out around Washington.

KEYES: The balloon used in yesterday's reenactment was 1,900 cubic feet - similar in size to the original balloon used by Lowe, but it wasn't allowed to take off due to Homeland Security concerns.

Unidentified Man: (as Professor Lowe): Now, pull the rope towards you...

KEYES: In the 19th century flight, Lowe flew with three people in a balloon named the Enterprise. Afterward, Lowe was invited to the White House and eventually ended up leading a union army corps of seven balloons.

President Lincoln and Professor Lowe, who apparently had some sort of special time travel dispensation for the festivities, reminisced as Union troops and civilian volunteers set about partially inflating the balloon.

Unidentified Man #2: (as President Lincoln) When you did that first balloon demonstration for me by using the telegraph from the balloon down, could be called the first telemetry.

Unidentified Man #1: (as Professor Lowe): It was the first...

Man #2: (as President Lincoln) First air to ground telegraph.

Man #1: (as Professor Lowe): (as Professor Lowe) ...air to ground telegraph; yes, sir.

DEBBIE CARTER: I think it's neat.

KEYES: Debbie Carter and her husband were standing in the crowd grinning and very mindful of the fact the balloon surveillance has been used in many wars since then.

CARTER: First World War and the Second World War, and all of the things, that that wouldn't have happened with airplanes and balloons if this hadn't have happened.

CROUCH: Make sure it goes underneath.

KEYES: Smithsonian curator Crouch says the museum wanted people to see this as a pivotal moment.

CROUCH: A hundred and fifty years later, being able to do aerial reconnaissance is still one of the most important things the military does with flying machines.

KEYES: Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.


LYDEN: This is NPR News.

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