The event featured a reenactor portraying Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, the head of the Union Army's Balloon Corps. Kevin Knapp, a retired Army officer and professional balloonist, has established a name for himself as an expert on Lowe and the military use of balloons during the Civil War. He set up a balloon on the grounds of Ft. Ward, complete with replica gas generators and a basket draped in patriotic bunting. The balloon is actually a 1941 Navy trainer, but bears a resemblance to the type of netted gas balloons used by Lowe and other period aeronauts. Incidentally, Knapp is the same reenactor who made a widely-publicized appearance on the the National Mall last summer as part of a reenactmet of Lowe's June 1861 balloon demonstration for President Abraham Lincoln.
|Thaddeus S.C. Lowe (Kevin Knapp) poses in front of his balloon. Knapp, a professional balloon pilot, brings first-hand flying experience to his interpretation of Civil War aviation.|
|View of the balloon attached to replica gas generators on the grounds of Ft. Ward. Knapp explained to me that the actual balloon was used by the Navy to transition pilots from light-than-air flight to airships. The Genesee County Village & Museum in Mumford, New York is currently building an exact replica of one of Lowe's balloons and will offer rides to visitors.|
|Lowe inflating his balloon Intrepid at Fair Oaks, Virginia. Note the gas generators mounted on wagons. The event at Ft. Ward replicated a wartime scene like the one above (courtesy of Smithsonian Air & Space Museum).|
|The event featured a miniature replica of a Civil War balloon, which floated above the trees at Ft. Ward. At least spectators were able to see something in the air without Knapp and museum staff drawing the ire of the Federal authorities.|
|John LaMountain, period engraving (courtesy of U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission)|
The fact that there is a reenactor portraying Lowe, and not LaMountain, says a lot about how we've come to remember the wartime balloonists. I discussed with Knapp why Lowe still captures the public's imagination, while other aeronauts, like LaMountain, have drifted into obscurity. (No pun intended.) The fact that Lowe had correspondents following his every move, and that he had friends in high places may have had something to do with ensuring Lowe's place in history. Wartime photographers also seemed obsessed with Lowe's military operations and left a remarkable visual record for future generations. In any event, it's refreshing to see living history events aside from battle reenactments, and Knapp's impression of Lowe helps to focus public attention on an interesting aspect of the Civil War and technology.
Timothy J. Dennee, "John LaMountain and the Alexandria Balloon Ascensions," Historic Alexandria Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 3, Fall 1997; U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission, "Balloons in the American Civil War;" Brett Zongker, Associated Press, "Smithsonian Recounts Balloon Flights of Civil War," June 10, 2011.