Saturday, August 23, 2014

Documentary Review: Lincoln and the Flying Spying Machine

Lincoln and the Flying Spying Machine: Man, Moment, Machine, History Channel, 2006.
This documentary presents a part of the Civil War about which you don't very often get much detail.  Thaddeus Lowe approached President Lincoln, and introduced him to the idea of using balloons for observation during battle.  President Lincoln wrote him a letter of recommendation; he was looking for anything which might give the Union an advantage.  President Lincoln was inexperienced in matters of war, but he was Commander-In-Chief.  The generals weren't too keen on the idea.  In fact they weren't really put into use at the First Battle of Bull Run, and information about reinforcements may have made a difference in the outcome.
However, the balloons did go with General McClellan onto the Peninsula.  There were actually a series of balloons, and a balloon corp was established.  Lowe was commissioned to construct seven balloons.  The larger balloons could travel higher, and provide a better perspective.
The balloons were inflated with hydrogen and required a generator.  The had a basket below the balloon to carry the aeronaut.  They were tethered, and an electrical wire was run along the tether through which telegraph message could be sent. 
At the Battle of Fairview they played a pivotal role.  McClellan had drawn up just outside of Richmond.  When McClellan positioned three corps north of the Chickahominy River, and two Corps south, BS the river became swollen because of rainfall, General Joseph E. Johnston decided to make a move and attack, in an attempt to destroy the units south of the river.  The attack would have been a complete surprise without the intervention the the balloonist.  He was able to observe the Rebel preparations, and based on his view, the troops were prepared.  Also bridging the river was rushed, and reinforcements were able to arrive before the corps below the river could be destroyed.
The Confederates accomplished their objective of pushing the Union forces back, but they were not able to eliminate them.  In this battle General Johnston was wounded, and replaced by the man in charge of the defenses of Richmond, General Robert E. Lee.  
For what ever reason, balloons fell out of favor for the rest of the war, and were not used to a great degree, if at all after 1862.  The balloons were relatively safe.  They were hard to hit because of their altitude.  The bullets did not cause the balloons to explode, nor to deflate.  One time a cannon ball struck the basket, but Lowe was not injured.

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