Movie of Belfast soldier’s life could be titled “Joe Wilson’s War”

Soldiers from the 4th Maine Infantry Regiment inflate the balloon “Intrepid” before the Battle of Fair Oaks, Va. in late May 1862. Among the soldiers assisting could be Joseph Wilson of Belfast; he wrote his parents a detailed letter about working with Professor Thaddeus Lowe, chief aeronaut of the United States Army. (Library of Congress Photo)

If ever a Maine soldier earned an appropriate title for a biographical movie, Joseph Wilson of Belfast certainly did.

The film could be titled “Joe Wilson’s War.”

Whatever secrets that he learned about aerial reconnaissance, Wilson enthusiastically blurted them to his parents in mid-June 1862.

But who could blame the strapping 24-year-old Belfast farmer, for how many Maine men had ever seen a balloon, much less inflated or guarded one?

Wilson had generational roots in Belfast, where grandfather John Wilson had practiced law, entertained Daniel Webster, and represented Massachusetts in the 13th and 15th Congresses. John and his progeny evidently favored the letter “J”; son John married Eliza Townsend, and among their sons were Jefferson, Jesse, John, Jones, Joseph, Julius, and Justus.

On April 29, 1861, the 5-10½ Joseph Wilson joined Co. K, 4th Maine Infantry Regiment and fell into formation under the watchful eye of Capt. Thomas Marshall. Probably a blonde, Wilson had blue eyes and a light complexion. He fought at Manassas that July and then spent his time on picket duty, building bridges and fortifications, and marching to and fro as dictated by military necessity.

And he cut firewood, as he had on his Belfast farm. Soldiers burned wood to cook their food and to heat their huts or tents. Rather than provide its brave defenders with dry firewood, the United States government issued them axes and pointed men like Wilson toward the nearest Southern forest.

He joined a 4th Maine wood-cutting detail working at Lawson Hill near Franconia, Va. on Dec. 1, 1861. As Wilson loaded wood — likely logs measuring 8-to-12 feet in length — into a wagon, he hefted a particular “stick of wood up over the hind wheel,” he testified almost 20 years later to Belfast attorney Wayland Knowlton.

“His foot slipped and he sprained himself across the small of his back,” Knowlton wrote in Wilson’s Sept. 13, 1881 petition for a pension. Wilson evidently suffered a painful, almost debilitating injury; after “he received medicine” from a regimental physician, he “remained in his camp” and “was treated by his surgeon all winter for kidney trouble occasioned by the [back] pain,” according to Knowlton.

Although hurt by a Confederate tree, Joe Wilson marched with the 4th Maine when the regiment accompanied George McClellan during his interminable advance toward Richmond in spring 1862. Traveling with the Army of the Potomac was Professor Thaddeus Sobieski Coulincort Lowe, the United States Army’s chief aeronaut.

Equipped with three balloons — the smaller Constitution and Washington and the larger Intrepid — Lowe inaugurated wartime aerial reconnaissance as he and other aeronauts spied on Confederate positions while flying 1,000 to 1,500 feet above the forested Tidewater. Union officers clamored to join Lowe aboard the two-man Intrepid; among the officers accommodated by Lowe was George Armstrong Custer, who found the experience frightening.

He was afraid of heights.

To launch a balloon, Lowe needed men to operate the inflation equipment and to hold the tethers that kept a balloon from drifting away with the prevailing breeze. Among the Union soldiers assigned to assist and guard Lowe during the Peninsula Campaign were the 4th Maine Infantry’s Lt. Arthur Libby, Joe Wilson, and 27 other enlisted soldiers from Co. B.

Addressing a letter to “Dear Father & Mother” on June 15, Wilson identified his location as “Prof. Lowe’s Balloon, Richmond,” an upbeat assessment about Federal odds on capturing the Confederate capital. “I … write a few lines to let you know that I am well,” he assured his parents, “and hope that … you and the rest of the family [are] enjoying the same great blessing.”

Besides guarding the balloon and handling its guides ropes during ascents, the 4th Maine boys helped inflate the balloon’s bag. “We have two tanks which will hold twenty hogsheads (approximately 168½ cubic feet) and they are all on wheels,” Wilson explained to his probably disbelieving parents. “We can move them (tanks) where ever we want to and as we have to use considerable water we set them near some stream and move the Balloon within 20 feet of them.”

Connecting the tanks with gutta-percha pipe, the soldiers then “put in iron blueings (sic) which they get from the [iron] foundries and then we put in a lot of water and then we put in oil of vitriol which makes the gas,” Wilson wrote.

“It generally takes four to six hours to inflate the Balloon,” he reported.

Lowe described the inflation equipment’s mobility in his memoirs. When a Union general asked Lowe to fly him on a particular mission, “I soon had a gas-generating apparatus [set up] beside a little pool of water, and from it extracted hydrogen enough in an hour [to inflate the slightly deflated Intrepid] to take both the general and myself to an altitude” where they could “look into the windows … of Richmond.”

And Richmond residents watched Lowe. He noted that in its May 26 edition, a Richmond newspaper reported that “yesterday they (Yankees) had a balloon in the air the whole day, it being witnessed by many of our citizens from the streets and housetops.”

While Wilson and his comrades guarded Lowe and his balloon, Southern gunners often fired at the balloon during its ascents. “You wished to know if I was exposed to any more danger here than I should be in Regiment #3, I will just say that we are not, although we are in some danger,” Wilson informed his parents.

“It consists of bomb shells. We very often get a few shells from the Rebs when the balloon is up, but as yet, they have not done any danger,” he wrote.

Lowe differed with that opinion. On May 30, Confederate gunners “masked twelve of their best rifle-cannon,” apparently by rolling them backwards into a ditch so the cannon barrels pointed into the sky approximately where the Yankee balloon should appear.

In doing so, the Confederate gunners created history’s first antiaircraft artillery battery.

“While [I was] taking an early morning observation” in the balloon “Washington” near Mechanicsville, “all the twelve guns were simultaneously discharged at short range, some of the shells passing through the rigging of the balloon and nearly all bursting not more than two hundred feet beyond me, showing that through spies they had gotten my base of operations and range perfectly.

“I changed my base, and they never came so near destroying the balloon or capturing me after that,” Lowe wrote.

He possibly referred to shifting his base into a deep gulch, where his 4th Maine Infantry guards camped “in the edge of a [nearby] grove,” Wilson indicated. The Maine boys kept a close watch on the deflated balloon, which they kept “anchored down with 35 bags of sand” weighing “50 to 75 pounds apiece.”

With 4th Maine Infantry soldiers handling the ropes that controlled his balloon, Professor Thaddeus Lowe ascends to reconnoiter Confederate positions during the May 31-June 1, 1862 Battle of Fair Oaks, Va. (Smithsonian Library Photo)

As May faded into history, the Confederate and Union armies converged on the Chickahominy River. Union infantry probed west toward Seven Pines (also called Fair Oaks), today only a time-worn village near the fenced boundary of Richmond International Airport. McClellan knew that Confederate troops lay somewhere in the thickly forested Chickahominy bottomlands.

He asked Lowe to find them.

Lowe’s reports and Wilson’s letter indicate that the 4th Maine detachment worked closely with the self-styled aeronaut. After dark on May 30, Lowe ascended and discovered that “the great [Confederate] camps about Richmond were ablaze with fires. I had then experience enough to know what this meant, that they were cooking rations preparatory to moving.”

Before sunrise on May 31, “I took another observation” from the Washington, “continuing the same until the sun lighted up the roads,” Lowe reported. “The atmosphere was perfectly clear. I … soon discovered one, then two, and then three columns of troops with artillery and ammunition wagons” advancing to attack Union divisions deployed at Seven Pines. Savage fighting took place there all day.

In his June 15 letter, Wilson made no mention about Lowe’s May 31 activities, but the 4th Maine detachment likely handled his balloon flights. As the battle continued on June 1, Lowe “was up fifteen times, and then there has to be a guard kept over the Prof’s tent and another over the Balloon, which consists of one man at a time, which stands an hour apiece,” Wilson wrote.

That Sunday, the Maine soldiers likely handled the balloon as they usually did on other days. “When it is calm we take her (balloon) and carry her up the hill near by and unhook the bags and attach four ropes, a thousand feet long, which are coiled down in tubs,” Wilson wrote. The soldiers holding each rope gradually let “the slack away on them, and up she goes.

“Sometimes higher than others, but never over a thousand feet,” he told his parents.
On June 1, “I ascended at 4 a.m., but owing to fog I was unable to see anything until after 6 o’clock,” Lowe reported to Brig. Gen. Andrew Atkinson Humphreys, McClellan’s chief topographical engineer.

At 7 a.m. Lowe telegraphed Humphreys that “I have just obtained a splendid observation from the balloon. I find the enemy in large force on the New Bridge road, about three miles this side of Richmond. In fact, all of the roads that are visible are filled with infantry and cavalry moving toward Fair Oaks Station” on the Richmond & York River Railroad.

Lowe reported that “there is also a large force opposite here (Mechanicsville), and in the same position that they were [in] yesterday, but not in motion.” McClellan could rest easy that no enemy attack threatened his divisions near Mechanicsville.

At 11 a.m., Lowe telegraphed that “my ascent and observations just completed show the firing of the enemy to be in the same position. The road in the rear … is filled with wagons and troops,” with “large bodies of troops” deployed on several roads leading to Seven Pines.

“I am astonished at their numbers compared with ours, although they are more concentrated than we are,” Lowe informed senior Union commanders. Federal reinforcements soon drove away those “concentrated” Confederate troops, and McClellan claimed victory at Seven Pines.

The next day, a press account published in Washington, D.C. reported that “during the whole of the battle of this morning (June 1), Prof. Lowe’s balloon was overlooking the terrific scene from an altitude of about two thousand feet. Telegraphic communications from the balloon to General McClellan … was successfully maintained, Mr. Parke Spring, of Philadelphia, acting as operator.

“This is believed to be the first time in which a balloon reconnaissance has been made during a battle, and certainly the first in which a telegraph station has been established in the war to report the movements of the enemy and the progress of a battle,” the report noted.

His June 15 letter-writing disrupted by military necessity, Wilson informed his parents that “I have just come off guard duty, so I will finish my letter … well, as there isn’t much more room, I will have to bring this letter to a close, and please give my love to all and accept the love of your son.”

Wilson and the other 4th Maine boys would enjoy a relatively quiet 11 days until Robert E. Lee ordered large-scale Confederate attacks against Union troops at nearby Beaver Dam Creek on June 26. That assault and the next day’s blood-letting at Gaines’s Mills sent Lowe flying, literally by air to report on Confederate troop movements and then figuratively by horse and wagon as the Army of the Potomac withdrew to Harrison’s Landing.

As for Joe Wilson, he would survive the retreat and the war — but other Wilson brothers would not.

John and Eliza Wilson had buried 23-year-old John Oscar after he died from “consumption” (tuberculosis) in mid-June 1858. Including Joe, four sons served in the Union Army: Jesse Alden with the 19th Maine Infantry in Virginia, Jones Everett with the 26th Maine Infantry in Louisiana, and Julius Augustus with the 4th Maine, which he had recently joined.

Now three: 16-year-old Jones Everett was killed in action at Port Hudson, La. on June 14, 1863.

Now two: 21-year-old Jesse Alden died as the 19th Maine deployed near Gettysburg’s Copse of Trees to repel advancing Confederate infantry on July 3, 1863. He likely fell near with the regiment’s monument stands today.

Now one: Severely wounded as the 4th Maine pitched into Confederate troops at Second Manassas in August 1862, Julius Augustus lay in agony until Joe discovered him upon the battlefield. Slinging Julius across his back, Joe staggered some three miles until he reached an aid station. Confederate infantry soon nabbed Joe; captured and then paroled, he did not fight again until exchanged for a captured Confederate private.

Sent home to recover from his Second Manassas wounds, 22-year-old Julius Augustus died in Liberty on July 21, 1864. Another brother, 21-year-old Justus Martin, died on July 14, 1866.

Survived by his wife, Austina, and their two sons, Byron and John, Joe Wilson outlived all his brothers except for Jefferson. Joe died on Nov. 9, 1909.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at