Yankee Gas Bags
Innovations abounded during the War of
the Rebellion, including ironclad battleships, the military telegraph,
high-speed newspaper printing, repeating rifles, the Secret Service, and army
aerial support. President Lincoln’s inquisitive nature encouraged inventors to
bring their ideas and prototypes.
Sobieski Constantine Lowe was a mere 29 years old in June
1861 when he met with Abraham Lincoln to offer his assistance to the Union army
by using aerial reconnaissance to observe the movement of rebel troops.
During the ensuing months, seven balloons were used as Union eyes in the sky with results that pleased Lowe beyond measure. Telegrams were transmitted from the balloons to a ground crew to inform army action. The balloon aeronauts reported positioning information to help Union shells hit their targets, thwarted Rebel cavalry surprise attacks, and prevented Union troops from accidentally firing upon their own troops.
The rebels had no countermeasures to stave off the “Yankee gas bags” and offered a $1000 reward and a promotion to anyone who destroyed a balloon. The reward was never paid out.
Military historians today observe that
although Lowe’s balloons aided the Union army, aerial reconnaissance was not
fully embraced by the many conservative generals of the Union army. General
McClellan received reports of Lee’s movements during the Peninsula Campaign in
1862 and chose to withdraw his vastly superior forces when he was within
striking distance of
Lowe had also been instrumental in the introduction of the first aircraft carriers. In 1861, Lowe directed the construction of the George Washington Parke Custis, rebuilt from a coal barge and equipped with a flight deck. The vessel towed Lowe in a balloon at an altitude of 1,000 feet while Lowe made observations. Lowe resigned in 1863 after disputes arose regarding his operations and his pay. Lowe returned to civilian life and quickly became a millionaire after inventing water gas process and selling his patented ice-making machines.