An account of the Union Balloon Corps in the Civil War.
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At the beginning of the Civil War Nathaniel Curry is a fifteen-year-old telegraph operator in Richmond. Almost by accident he helps Thaddeus Lowe direct artillery fire on a Confederate artillery battery, the first real use of an aircraft in warfare. When word gets around Richmond of his actions, he flees to the North and joins the nascent Balloon Corps. He works with the struggling Corps, but finds himself being drawn against his will into the Union spy organization as well. He struggles throughout the book to decide which side he wants to serve, while trying to keep both sides from trying to kill him.
One afternoon found Nathaniel taking a young cavalry officer up. Lieutenant Spencer had light hair and a fair complexion and a fine new pair of field glasses around his neck. His uniform proclaimed him a member of Hooker’s corps.
Spencer was very interested in the balloon and politely asked to look it over before flight. Nathaniel walked him around the Union, pointing out the various features of the device.
“Why do you have two valves?” Spencer asked.
“Well, sir, it’s easiest to fill it from the bottom. And when we’re flying we can make fine adjustments to the buoyancy with the bottom valve. But if we want to come down in a hurry we can open the top valve. The gas just pours out of that one.”
“Why do you have those sandbags? Doesn’t that make it harder for the balloon to rise?”
“Yes, sir, and that’s just why we have them. With more lift above and more weight below the balloon flies steadier. And if we’re flying free we can drop a bag or two to go up.”
“Oh, I see.”
“What would you like to observe today, sir?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Well, it matters in how high we need to go. The higher we go, the farther we can see. On the other hand, if you wanted to observe things nearby, you’d want to stay lower.”
“Ah. I see. Well, I’d like to see as far south as possible.”
“Will you want a telegraph along?”
“No, I’ll write a report upon landing.”
Nathaniel set the soldiers to knotting some coils of rope together, testing the strength of the knots himself. To save weight he used a single line.
“How much line are you laying on?”
“Three thousand feet.”
“Whew! More than half a mile.”
“Would you like to go up now?”
“Well, I suppose so.”
They climbed aboard and Nathaniel ordered the ground crew to cast them off. As they rose he sneaked a glance at Spencer. Most people making their first flight wore expressions of awe or fear, but Spencer looked calmly around at his surroundings. He was holding the shoulder-ring with both hands, but it wasn’t the white-knuckled death grip of most new flyers.
“Is this your first flight, sir?”
“How do you like it?”
“It’s most instructive.”
They passed eight hundred feet. It was now possible to see over Marye’s Heights and Prospect Hill; there were still Confederate forces there. They rose more slowly now, as there was less buoyancy at this altitude and they were lifting more rope with every second.
“May I ask how old you are, sir?”
Spencer glanced at him. “You aren’t a soldier so I guess I can be familiar with you. I’m eighteen.”
“Why, so am I, just this past month. Isn’t that rather young to be an officer?”
“It certainly is,” he replied ruefully. “The older men indulge me something awful.”
“Well, there are worst fates.”
“Of course there are. Still, I hope I can make a name for myself in this conflict. It’s a wicked thought, but I sometimes find myself hoping it doesn’t get over too soon.”
“Or you don’t die.” Nathaniel instantly regretted these words but
Spencer smiled in agreement.
“Yes, or I don’t die. Still, one mustn’t fear dying too much, either.”
“Well, you don’t seem to fear flying, and most men do the first time.”
“I assure you, I am on the absolute edge of panic,” Spencer replied with a laugh.
Nathaniel glanced at the silk strip, the sole legacy of John LaMountain’s tenure with the Balloon Corps. They were still rising.
“Tell me, Curry, was that the Jew Ezekiel Vogler I saw in your camp this morning?”
“No, that was Solomon Vogler, his younger brother. Why, is Ezekiel a friend of your’n?”
“My father has had business dealings with him. I wouldn’t call him a friend; his family after all can’t be received in society. But they’re one of the richest families in New York.”
“Really?” Nathaniel raised his eyebrows. “I must remember to be nicer to him.”
The balloon fetched up against its line. With so much rope below it the jolt wasn’t hard, but it still made the balloon bob and roll. The light breeze pushed them to the west, turning the balloon. “End of the line, ladies and gentlemen,” Nathaniel said.
Spencer smiled and took up his field glasses. At first he scanned the horizon, but after a few minutes he turned his attention to the city of Fredericksburg. He said, “Can we get any closer to that?”
“Can the balloon go any closer to the city?”
“Well, sir, we’re fixed to the ground by the drag line.”
“Yes, of course, but that doesn’t answer my question.”
“Well, no, sir, it doesn’t. The truth of the matter is we could get closer.”
“I thought so. Let me see if I have this figured out. The breeze is out of the east so if we released some gas we would settle to the west, over the city. Then, when we were through observing, we could drop some sandbags to rise over the camp again.”
“Very good, sir.”
“Well, shall we?”
“Well, first off, why do you want to do this? It would be dangerous.”
“Not if we stay out of musket range. And I’d like to see if there are snipers in those buildings.”
Nathaniel thought it over. They were at three thousand feet and the city was about twenty-five hundred feet away. They could settle right over it.
Should they? It was certainly an unorthodox move, but nothing in the rules forbade it. And it would be good to know if the city was indeed deserted.
He gave a hard pull on the rope attached to the top gas valve. He smiled at Spencer and said, “I hope I live to regret this.”
“Bully,” Spencer said.
The breeze wasn’t very strong. As they released gas the balloon initially dropped straight down, with large loops of rope falling onto the ground. Then the wind moved them westward. The line lifted from the ground again; as it grew taut the balloon was pulled down some more.
Nathaniel looked things over. The line behind them now ran at a forty-five degree angle to the ground. They were above the river now, near the edge of the city, at about two thousand feet. That left them well out of musket range. A rifle cannon could reach them but it would probably not be accurate enough to hit them.
So far no one on either side seemed to have taken note of what they were doing. No: the ground crew must have noticed it. Well, he would have to talk to them when they got down.
Spencer was looking through his glasses again. Nathaniel spoke low: “Can you see anyone?”
“No,” Spencer said in the same tone. “Maybe the city really is deserted.”
“Only one way to find out. Shall we?”
“By all means. ‘Lay on, Macduff, and damn’d be him that first cries, “Hold, enough!”’”
Nathaniel used the lower valve this time. He vented for a few seconds; a few drops of evil-smelling water fell into the car.
The balloon had so little buoyancy that it did not respond at first. Then it dropped several hundred feet. As it settled at its new height it drifted to the west, to the edge of the city.
Nathaniel glanced back at the line. Some of it was now in the river, and he had a sudden fear that the weight of the water in the rope or the river’s current would pull them downward. But the line pulled reluctantly from the water. As the line grew taut again the balloon was once more drawn downward.
It was the same pattern as before: the balloon dropped, it drifted to the west, then it dropped again.
Fredericksburg was not as large as it appeared from the other side of the river. The city extended a mile along the waterfront but it did not go back more than a few blocks.
They were over the city now and about seven hundred feet up. Whatever else they did, they could not linger here very long.
“Do you want to go lower, sir?”
Spencer leaned forward, placing a hand on the edge of the basket, a look of wonder on his face. “Do…do we dare?”
Nathaniel gave another pull on the lower valve. A few seconds only he held it open, but that was enough. The balloon dropped to four hundred feet, then crept deeper into the city. City blocks moved slowly beneath them. Then the line grew taut again and the balloon edged downward.
Nathaniel’s heart was in his mouth. The buildings were a mere hundred yards below. If the breeze picked up it could drive them right down onto the rooftops. A steeple or a weathervane or, God forbid, a lightning rod could then puncture the gasbag. But the breeze held steady.
“If we get shot at, keep in mind there’s an iron plate under our feet.”
“Wouldn’t we go up like a powder-keg if the gasbag got hit?”
“Probably not. But it would start leaking and we’d have to skedaddle.”
Both were whispering.
The densely-packed buildings of the business district were below them, a patchwork of shakes and shingles. Pigeons flew between buildings and perched on the eaves.
The city was laid out in a grid like any modern American city. Some streets ran in sinuous patterns, following some landform or another, but most of them were straight.
It was a prosperous and pretty town. Some of the nicer homes had gardens. Nathaniel saw several churches, a dry-goods store and a slave market, but not a sign of life.
He looked back toward the river. The line was just above the rooftops. What if it caught on something? What if someone reached up and grabbed it?
Then he would drop some ballast.
But what if the line was fouled and they couldn’t rise?
Then he would cut the line. He would rise high enough to catch the easterly and ride that back to friendly territory.
“There,” Spencer whispered.
“Two horses at the back of that building.”
Nathaniel squinted at the shadows, then pulled out his pocket telescope. The horses were on the west side of the building where the Union Army couldn’t see them. They wore saddles and were tied to a post.
“So that proves—” Nathaniel started, but Spencer whispered, “Ssh. Listen.”
The deliberate clop of draft horses drifted up from below. They both searched for the source of the sound and both found it: a wagon, making its way down a narrow side street. The surrounding buildings nearly blocked it from view.
Spencer said, “Is there any way to bring us over more that way?” and waved his arm to the north. Before Nathaniel could answer there came a sharp crack from below, followed by the angry hum of a musket ball passing near the car.
Both youths started shouting at once. They sounded like schoolboys caught in a prank by the headmaster. Nathaniel began pulling the knots of the sandbags, dropping them. Spencer began doing the same thing on the other side of the car. Nathaniel shouted, “Stop, that’s enough, don’t drop any more.”
“Are you sure?” As if in answer several more shots were fired beneath them. There were also a couple of deeper booms.
“Look over the side and see.”
Union was again taking to the sky. It was swinging up and to the east like the second hand of a titanic clock. They watched the city drop away from them. They were soon at a thousand feet and nearly over the river. There were no more shots but they could hear curses shouted from below.
“What were they firing at us?”
Nathaniel shrugged. “Sounded like muskets.”
“Yes, but there was another sound. Was that mortar?”
“Oh, that was our sandbags hitting.”
“Oh, heavens!” Spencer laughed. “I hope we didn’t damage their roof.”
“Well, I suspect we did, sir.”
Nathaniel checked the line. They were rising clean, with no fouling. They were well over the Rappahannock now and above two thousand feet.
“Well!” Spencer exclaimed. “That’s the closest I’ve come yet.”
“Really?” Nathaniel said.
“What, you’ve come closer? I thought you fellows were above it all in these things.”
“Well, not entirely.”
The balloon didn’t reach its full height; the second hand drifted to a stop about five seconds short of the twelve. Nathaniel could see no holes in the gasbag or in either of them.
“What shall we do now?” Spencer asked.
“Well, we’re at altitude again. Do you want to look around the horizon some more?”
“Yes, I do, thank you.” He raised his glasses.
“There’s something else we can do, sir.”
“Well, that is, I don’t think anyone needs to know about this.”
“I heartily agree.”