The first air force

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The National Mall in Washington is the nation’s front yard, site of major national gatherings. Lining the Mall are various Smithsonian museums and the National Gallery.  I’m sure many people have no idea that the Mall has not always been there in its current state … the area has been transformed many times over. The National Air and Space Museum has only stood on the south side, between 4th and 7th Streets since 1976. During the Civil War, this area was occupied by the Washington Gas Light Company generating plant and the Columbia Armory which housed small arms and other military equipment. Nearby stood the Mary Ann Hall’s house, one of Washington’s best known brothels. The City Canal carried the city’s sewage and waste along the Mall’s northern edge.

This past weekend the Air and Space Museum commemorated an event that took place on ground just yards from the Museum 150 years ago this week… on June 18. Professor Thaddeus Lowe inflated a 55 ft. tall gas balloon to demonstrate its potential to help the Union Army with gathering aerial reconaissance.  He wanted to convince President Lincoln that the Union Army could benefit from a balloon corps.  He had encountered resistance to his idea from the War Department, so at the encouragement of Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry, he made several public demonstrations. The location was selected based on the easy access to the gas needed to inflate the balloon.

Henry’s daughter, Mary, witnessed the event and described it in some detail in her journal. She wrote: “Prof. Lowe made some experiments with his balloon. He wishes to be of service to the government in reconnoitering the forces and position of the enemy… about sundown he moved majestically along throught the air to the President’s grounds, the balloon drawn by a crowd of men and boys. [it was pulled via tether lines to the White House] He seemed to be enjoying his ride greatly.”

He made a series of ascents in the balloon, the highest being to 500 feet, about the height of the Washington Monument. Oh, what an amazing view it must have been. He sent a telegram from the balloon to the White House: “this point of observation commands an area near fifty miles in diameter. The city with its girdle of encampments presents a superb scene.  I have pleasure in sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station…”

Lincoln invited him to the White House where they apparently stayed up very late discussing the military potential of aerial reconnaissance. Lincoln eventually offered Lowe his full support and he received funds in August to build a balloon designed for military use.

While sadly, the air space restrictions did not allow the Museum to inflate the replica balloon entirely, the re-enactment brought crowds of interested onlookers who met President Lincoln and Thaddeus Lowe, as well as Mary Henry. The Museum was given a plaque to commemorate the historic event and future generations will learn about the birth of, well, President Lincoln’s air force.

more info:

Read a post describing Lowe’s balloon activities at Pohick church.

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at or
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3 Responses to The first air force

  1. Pingback: Happy Birthday to the Smithsonian | historyplaces

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