Thursday, March 22, 2012

Civil War Naval Aviation

Of all the discussion about Civil War naval warfare and technology, the use of barges as balloon carriers always produces at least a short discussion. Early aeronauts Thaddeus Lowe, John La Mountain, and many others all attempted to get the U.S. Army's attention with their respective balloon corps projects.

In naval warfare history, the project that gets the most attention is Lowe's George Washington Parke Custis (often written as G.W.P. Custis for short). A self-taught chemist who made several ground breaking discoveries into the chemical properties and application of hydrogen, Lowe had an invented a machine that created hydrogen gas with sulfuric acid and hot pieces of iron. He poured the acid over the iron, which liberated the hydrogen atoms from the sulfur. The hydrogen was then pumped into the balloon. Historians and writers often referred to G.W.P. Custis as USS G.W.P. Custis. The Navy, however, never granted the vessel such an honor. Additionally, Lowe himself did not seem to think much of the vessel. In one letter, he referred to the vessel simply as a ""lighter (formerly the G.W.P. Custis)."

When Lowe made his ascent from the Potomac River using Custis as his carrier, he attempted to claim to be the first person ever to launch a balloon from water. La Mountain, however, clearly gets the honor when he made an ascent in Hampton Roads three months earlier. His report to General Ben Butler was quite useful as he described the number of Confederate tents, the location of Confederate shore batteries, and the number of large ships anchored in downtown Norfolk.

Unfortunately, no one took maritime application of ballooning seriously. Like many ideas, it would have to wait.

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