Gas Bag of Courage
(The Balloonist, 8/13/07)
By Nicholas Nicastro
The Balloonist. By Stephen Poleskie
(338 pp., Frederic C. Beil Publishers, $24.95)
It is often said that journalists write the first draft of history. Thaddeus Lowe, the pioneering inventor and aviator, was perhaps the first notable exception to this rule. Rising in his silk balloon over the killing fields of the Civil War, Lowe instantly got a breadth of perspective—a sense of who, what, and where on a grand scale—that was previously limited to scholars of great and tragic events. "To the right could be seen the York River, following which the eye could rest of Chesapeake Bay. On the left, and at about the same distance, flowed the James River..." wrote one of Lowe's most notorious passengers, George Armstrong Custer. "Between these two extended a most beautiful landscape, and no less interesting than beautiful; it being made a theatre of operations of armies larger and more formidable than had ever confronted each other on his continent before..."
With The Balloonist: The Story of T.S.C. Lowe—Inventor, Scientist, Magician, and Father of the US Air Force, Ithaca-based writer Stephen Poleskie offers up what is perhaps the most gratifying kind of biography—one that convinces us that its subject is so manifestly significant that the absence of previous books about him seems downright mystifying. As hinted in the subtitle, Lowe (1832-1913) was something of an industrial alchemist, a restless polymath who contrived innovations in fields as disparate as chemistry, engineering, meteorology, espionage, and roadshow razzmatazz. His antebellum "magic" shows, staged under the assumed title of "Professor" Lowe, were more scientific lecture/demonstrations than the kind of portentous dinner theatre practiced by his modern descendants. Yet they were also very popular, making him not only a pioneering inventor but the Science Guy of his times.
Lowe's lifetime passion, however, was the delicate craft of ballooning. Conceiving the then-outrageous plan to cross the Atlantic by air, he worked steadily to improve the technology and public profile of lighter-than-air aviation. The advent of the Civil War undercut public support for such adventures, but not Lowe's enthusiasm: if balloons could cross oceans, they certainly could be used to erase the front lines between armies. Along with a handful of rivals, Lowe labored hard to get Union generals to appreciate the potential of hydrogen balloons for intelligence-gathering.
It took the intercession of Lincoln himself to finally get the US Army Balloon Corps off the ground. Rising above the battlefields of Virginia, Lowe became a unique witness to some of the most momentous battles in the war, including George McClellan's ill-fated Peninsula campaign. He became the first to supply real-time intelligence from the air when he conceived the notion of stringing a telegraph wire from his gondola. As his custom-built observation balloon floated above the trees, he also became the most shot-at man in the war, as Confederate sharpshooters and gunners attempted to erase the Union intelligence advantage by blasting him out of the sky. That Lowe exposed himself to such danger for more than two years as a civilian contractor, without commission or regular salary, is not the least of his miracles.
Poleskie tells his story with a rare combination of practical expertise (the author is an aviator himself), empathy, and poetic vividness. Describing Lowe's lingering horror at the carnage he witnessed, Poleskie writes "A violent spasm twitched his body. Once again he heard the boundless roar of cannon; saw the shattered bodies and the collapsing bridges; listened to the clumsy, gasping cries of drowning men; and the agonizing shriek of the wounded. Riderless horses wallowed in the mud along the banks snorting flames from their nostrils. Corpses, swollen to twice their size, ground out curses and blasphemies from their bloated mouths as they floated on the spume. Summoned by he did not know what, the whole ghastly parade assembled around him, marching skyward, a relentless invasion of his senses."
The Balloonist is full of similar, fictionalized passages, many of which are quite fine. Indeed, Poleskie is not alone in mixing the roles of historian and novelist—the bookstore shelves are lately full of similar hybrids. More literal-minded readers may chaff at this approach, however: it is occasionally nice to know which fine reflection or turn-of-phrase originates with the author, and which from Lowe's own memoirs (published only in 2004). Other strange omissions, such as a single likeness of Lowe, or an index (though Poleskie does provide a bibliography) may also frustrate the conventional reader.
Compelling as Lowe's story is, the notion that balloon reconnaissance alone could have shortened the Civil War is arguably wishful thinking. Though Lowe did work wonders in that brief time before bureaucratic infighting finally drove him away, one senses that the skein of determined stupidity enveloping the Union general staff would have squandered any advantage. Indeed, one of the unanticipated dividends of Poleskie's book is to put the current trail of miscues in Iraq in historical perspective. If anything is as perennial as war itself, it's the quality of the foolishness it seems to attract.
©2007 Nicholas Nicastro