While researching a “Maine at War” column about Joseph Wilson from the 4th Maine Infantry and his Army Balloon Corps experiences during the Peninsular Campaign, I read quite a bit about Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, the corps’ erstwhile boss, and his faithful assistant and father, Clovis Lowe.
Imagine my surprise at meeting them on Sept. 14, 2012 at the Antietam 150th anniversary re-enactment held at Sharpsburg, Md.!
The first clue came as Pat Horne and I walked onto the re-enactment grounds at Legacy Manor Farm, just north of the Antietam battlefield. There, floating high above the farm, was Lowe’s balloon, the Intrepid!
A few minutes later, I was chatting with the good professor and his father. A large, partially inflated balloon lay behind them, and Clovis stood amidst gas-generating equipment similar to that depicted in a famous photo of the Intrepid being inflated near Mechanicsville, Va.
The modern, nattily dressed Professor Thaddeus Lowe, a.k.a. Kevin Knapp, is “from everywhere,” he said while standing next to the balloon‘s basket. “My dad served 23 years in the Navy. I served 28 years in the Army, 15 [years] as a Green Beret.
“I’m a professional balloon pilot. I’m rated in both gas and hot-air balloons, and I share Civil War Balloon Corps’ living history,” Knapp said. A board member for the Balloon Federation of America, he co-piloted the winning balloon participating in the 2006 America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race. Knapp and his pilot flew their balloon 1,478 miles from Albuquerque, N.M. to Citra, Fla. in 60 hours and 45 minutes.
In the early 1990s, when Knapp was “a recruiting operations officer” for the Army, “I saw that the Navy had two balloons as part of their recruiting program. It’s a great tool to get attention,” especially from the media, and “to represent the Navy in areas of the country” where no Navy base exists.
Knapp decided to launch an Army balloon. He pitched the idea as a recruiting tool to Army officials, who declined to associate their service branch with hot air.
Instead, Knapp had a large gas balloon made in 1993, and he started “sharing the [Balloon Corps’] oral history” that same year.
“My personal balloon is the Army balloon. It’s not the Army’s balloon; it’s the Army balloon,” he stressed. “Like Thaddeus Lowe, [I am a] civilian.
“I shared Civil War Balloon Corps oral history, because it’s part of the Army’s history,” Knapp said.
“Early Army ballooning, modern Army ballooning: That’s how I picked up on it.
“Because … I have the [ballooning] background and knowledge for the [Civil War], sesquicentennial, it’s been my focus” to portray living history, he said. People “can actually touch and see and feel [the balloon] and ask questions” about it.
“It’s never been done before, (portraying a Civil War balloonist) and it was an important part of the history that often gets [only] a sentence or a paragraph in a book,” Knapp said.
“People are surprised to learn there are books relating to ballooning during the Civil War. It’s often overlooked,” he said.
Through a surprising chain of events, Knapp was invited to bring his balloon and himself to a 2002 reunion of Lowe’s descendants, the first such since 1905. “I took my modern Army balloon and gave most of the Lowe family their first balloon ride in a tethered situation,” he recalled.
“So with that, I’ve been brought into the Lowe family,” he said.
Knapp lent his ballooning expertise to a History Channel “Man, Moment, and Machines” episode titled “Lincoln’s Flying Spy Machine.” He and the show’s host took a balloon flight over the Napa Valley in California, and using two telescopes that Lowe had taken aloft during the Civil War, “we shared a visual representation of what you could actually see from an altitude of 2,500 feet,” Knapp said.
A Napa Valley highway and the vehicles on it “represented cavalry movement or a supply train,” he said. The smoke rising from orchard smokepots in the early morning to warm the fruit “represented camp sites,” he commented. “There was a bridge [concealed] in the trees that you couldn’t see from the ground in a straight-line distance, but you could see [it] from the air.”
Retired Army aviator John DePerro portrays Clovis Lowe, who assisted his famous son during his wartime ballooning operations. On this sunny Friday morning, DePerro and Knapp had partially inflated their 19,000-cubic-foot gas balloon and had tethered their 1/15th-scale model of Lowe’s “Intrepid” so it floated high above the Legacy Manor Farm. The model balloon is based on surviving photos of the “Intrepid.”
“Lowe understands clearly that he is creating a combat unit“ early in the war, DePerro said. Lowe had to design a different balloon to withstand wartime rigors.
“The balloons up until then were basically [flown] on the county-fair circuit,” DePerro said. “They were lightweight construction. So he (Lowe) doubles the thickness of the silk, he goes with the 50-percent thicker cording, he goes with the higher-quality rope, he puts some armament (armor) in the bottom of the gondola.
“He’s creating a combat unit. This was not an amateur hour,” he said. “All of the flyers that he hires have been flying before the war. These guys were very professional. They were organized. They were basically the first combat aviation unit in the history of the world.”
Also a member of the Civil War Balloon Corps, DePerro stressed that “we don’t purport to be re-enactors. We purport to actually be balloonists.
“We were down there (at Gaines Farm, Va.) on the [150th] anniversary date [of the 1862 battle], and we actually put a balloon up,” he said. Detailed descriptions exist of a particular ravine where Lowe hid his base after being shelled by Confederate artillery; “you can’t quite get into the gulley because it’s” grown up with trees today, “but we got real close to it with the idea of replicating” the base during the 150th anniversary re-enactment, DePerro said.
Civil War balloonists ascended only when their balloons were tethered. Free flight could take a balloon over enemy lines and send a balloonist before a firing squad if he were captured and tried as a spy.
For more information about the Civil War Balloon Corps, log onto www.civilwarballooncorp.com.