Although the collection of the National Air and Space Museum contains some of the best air- and spacecraft, it also has one of the best collections of artifacts from the often forgotten days of ballooning. Before humans were able to fly into the heavens on wings or rockets, they first rose off the ground in balloons, often tethered to prevent complete flight. One object from this collection, however, stands out for its peculiar place in American military history. It is a piece of fabric from the most fashionable balloon of the American Civil War.
In 1862, a Civil War “arms race” was in full swing on the Virginia peninsula east of Richmond. The Union Army had fielded observation balloons to assist with their movement against Confederate forces. Backed by Thaddeus Lowe, the U.S. Balloon Corps made numerous observation flights to watch the Confederate army as it changed position to protect Richmond. In a postwar writing in The Century magazine named “Our March against Pope,” Confederate general James Longstreet wrote:
“The Federals had been using balloons in examining our positions, and we watched with curious eyes their beautiful observations as they floated high up in the air, and well out of the range of our guns. We longed for the balloons that poverty denied us.”
Although the Union Army was first to the field with observation balloons, the Confederate forces were trying to field their very own. The first attempt involved a hot air balloon flown by Captain John Randolph Bryan outside of Yorktown, which ended in near disaster (a story for another post). The first silk gas balloon of Confederate fame, named Gazelle, was constructed in Savannah, Georgia, by Langdon Cheves, who used his own funds for the project. Although the balloons of the U.S. Balloon Corps were made of white silk and coated in a varnish made by Thaddeus Lowe, Cheves did not have access to the same type of supplies. In a writing in the South Carolina Historical Magazine, author J. H. Easterby explained, “…Mr. Cheves designed and superintended the construction at the Chatham Armory in Savannah, chiefly at his own expense (I believe), made of ladies dress silk bought in Savannah and Charleston, in lengths of about 40 feet and of various colours.” This material was sewn together and varnished to create the Confederate war balloon. This fashionable, multi-colored patchwork creation of various materials brought about the nickname by which it was often called, “the Silk Dress Balloon.” This construction even brought about rumors that followed the balloon well after the war. James Longstreet wrote, “A genius arose for the occasion and suggested that we send out and gather together all the silk dresses in the Confederacy and make a balloon.” This fictitious story was often repeated in various post-war writings.
Once finished and sent to Richmond, the “Silk Dress Balloon” was handed over to General Edward Porter Alexander in order to begin the observations. In his memoirs, General Alexander explained, “We could not get pure hydrogen gas to fill the balloon, & had to use ordinary illuminating gas, from the Richmond Gas Works…” This gas, created from coal, was primarily used to light gas lamps in homes and on streets throughout the city of Richmond. After the balloon was filled in Richmond, it was attached to a train car and moved to the front. Alexander made his first observations during the battle of Gaines Mill, from which he was able to signal Union troop movements to his fellow officers.
The system worked well at first, and the Confederate forces decided to move their operation to the water. The silk balloon was loaded onto an armed tug called the Teaser, and the ship would bring it from the Gas Works to the front lines along the James River. This system, however, eventually led to the demise of the Gazelle. The Teaser, loaded with the Gazelle, ran into Union naval forces on the James River, and was fired upon and captured by the U.S.S. Maratanza. The balloon was given to Thaddeus Lowe, who cut it up into scraps to give as souvenirs. Our patch of the balloon was donated to the museum by the Lowe family.Although small in size, the “Silk Dress Balloon” fragment in the Museum’s collection tells a fascinating story. It may look a little silly, but the fabric did hold gas and worked well during the war. It may not seem like much, but this small piece fabric preserves the story of the balloons of the Confederate army and their unorthodox construction materials. Imagine what it must have looked like to see dress silk rise in the distance above a battlefield.
Tom Paone is a museum tech at the National Air and Space Museum.