28 August 2014. Tavares, Florida — At the Rifles, Rails & History Living History Encampment at Tavares, which is touted as America’s Seaplane City, visitors were treated to examples of technology from what is referred to as the American Civil War, War Between the States, War for Southern Independence or War of Northern Aggression.
The displays at Wooten Park included a 1/2 scale exterior replica of the Confederate States Navy submarine H.L. Hunley, an operating locomotive from the era, artillery pieces, a balloon display and The Florida Confederate Memorial Wall.
The sights and sounds during the outdoor gathering combined to generate memories of early military aviation in America and an 1862 “friendly fire” incident involving Florida troops and an asset of the aerial branch of the Confederacy.
It was during the bloody conflagration between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America, long before the Confederate Air Force vintage warplane preservation group was formed in 1957, that military aviation underwent a baptism of fire. Manned balloons provided samplings of the value of aerial reconnaissance and troops on earth attempted to shoot them down. Despite the dangers inherent in launching and recovering near the enemy, Southern armed forces could and did benefit from facts gleaned by men within the lofty observation posts.
Notably, J. Ambler Johnston, Chairman of the Richmond Civil War Centennial Committee, stated in the preface to the organization’s 1963 publication The Air Arm of the Confederacy; A History of Origins and Usages of War Balloons by the Southern Armies during the American Civil War that the balloon was “the forerunner of modern aviation.”
Mr. Johnston additionally surmised, after reading the findings of Dr. Joseph J. Cornish III, who was then head of the Aerophysics Department at Mississippi State University, that the “Confederacy, devoid of technical facilities, was not lagging in aeronautical efforts.”
In fact, Cornish noted (page 21) that Confederate generals were supportive of and grateful for the information provided by the army balloonists.
Dr. Cornish reported that Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard “was an enthusiastic balloon champion who also became the father of many counter-aerial military practices.” Furthermore, the academician contended that General Joseph E. Johnston “firmly believed that air strength was essential in war.”
Professor Cornish also wrote that Major General John B. Magruder “made good use of balloons in the Yorktown area,” and pointed out (page 22) that “E.P. Alexander, as aeronaut and general, felt that the South must have and use balloons.” In fact, as Cornish penned, “He wrote of their great value, both in defense and offense.”
However, the average foot soldier was unaccustomed to balloon operations and procedures. This unfamiliarity brought about an embarrassing, if ultimately harmless, shelling aimed at Captain John Randolph Bryan.
During Bryan’s third and final ascension on 5 May 1862, a nocturnal endeavor, near Williamsburg the rope tether which was affixing the balloon to the ground unexpectedly entangled a curious infantryman when the gas bag and basket were stationary at an altitude of approximately 200 feet.
The hapless trooper accidentally stepped into a coil of rope, one end of which was attached to the windlass, and the ensnared man hollered as he began to levitate upward in an inverted position. Alarmed, a mate grabbed an axe and parted the line. His action simultaneously freed his compatriot in arms but also unintentionally released the balloon.
Captain Bryan quickly found himself in jeopardy as his platform began moving toward Federal/U.S. Army/Union lines. Soon Bryan also feared a water landing with rivers growing closer.
The airborne observer’s initial worries were unfounded, however, as he soon found his balloon’s movements to be carrying him over Confederate-held territory. Relieved, Bryan realized that his transport was traveling over the Second Florida Regiment.
Unfortunately, the men of the unit, with Colonel Ward in command, thought the contraption to be conveying a Federal spy and opened fire. Despite Bryan’s attempts to inform the shooters of his identity, Second Florida personnel spat lead musket balls and cannon shells into the air around Bryan.
After surviving the harrowing ordeal the aeronaut drifted slowly over the York River. Bryan, anticipating a necessary abandonment of his ‘mount,’ began to undress preparatory to jumping into the water below. Fortuitously, as he was in the process of shedding garments a shift in the wind carried the balloon across the Williamsburg shore and to safety.
Captain Byan alighted on Confederate ground, secured a hawser around an apple tree, made his way to Johnston’s headquarters and reported his observations. The appreciative commander used Bryan’s information to plan an attack for the next morning.
For Confederate States commands balloon missions were experimental flights of limited effectiveness. However, more frequent use, if numbers of the vehicles could have been produced and fielded, might have changed the course of the latter battles. We will never know.
Sources, Suggested Readings & Viewings
Balloons over Charleston: Confederate balloon operations in 1863
Civil War Balloonists
Civil War Hot-Air Balloons
Cornish, Joseph Jenkins III, The Air Arm of the Confederacy; A History of Origins and Usages of War Balloons by the Southern Armies during the American Civil War, Richmond: Richmond Civil War Committee, 1963.
Gas Balloons: View From Above the Civil War Battlefield
History of military ballooning
John Randolph Bryan: The Confederate Aeronaut, 1862
The Balloons with the Army the Potomac
The Confederate Air Force: Balloon Reconnaissance in the Civil War