The Intersection of Fact and Fiction, Pleasingly, I Hope

150 years ago these next weeks, George B. McClellan took the largest, best equipped, best trained army in American history up the Yorktown Peninsula in an attempt to take Richmond and end the Civil War.  For reasons as much psychological as tactical or strategic, it came to nothing.

This is an important period in the first volume of the Hanlin Trilogy – William is a West Point friend of McClellan and, initially at least, as blinded by Mac’s organizational brilliance and ‘esprit de corps’ as everyone else is.  I will be posting regularly through the next weeks as 150th anniversary events warrant.

This takes place while the Army of the Potomac sits in all its might in front of Yorktown, occupying many of the same positions Washington and Rochambeau did 81 years before.  As usual William is with his friend, the Prince de Joinville, artist, observer, deposed French royalty – and real person.

The following event actually occurred during the Yorktown siege:

A perfect spring day, a few scattered high clouds, barely a wisp of a breeze, all good things for Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe as he oversaw the attempt to inflate the Intrepid – his hot air balloon – in a field covered with ropes, canvas, a large woven basket, mechanical equipment that was vaguely Torquemada-ish, and privates drafted for some yet to be described physical labor involving the thicks ropes they held in hand.

Joinville and I perched on a fence under an impressive oak and watched the inflatable beast shrug in short serpentine slitherings across the rich sod, taking slow shape with an insistent hissing, sluggishly attempting to get off the ground like an old man off a low divan . . . Perhaps an old man with arthritis, gout, and a few other maladies, for several times it became airborne – if being a foot or so off Virginia soil is, indeed, airborne – and several times it collapsed back in a heap with a huff.

Joinville, far right, no insignia

The fifth or sixth time rising up, it kept going – too high, too fast, Lowe had overcompensated– wildly out of control, bouncing side to side across the clearing, dragging the basket, threatening to dash it to pieces, scattering the hysterically amused privates, while a frantic Lowe fiddled with the mechanicals with Faustian intensity and the privates lurched like a badly outmatched side in a tug of war.

In time it was brought under control to what may have been sincere cheers from our fellow spectators. Through the exertions of the straining privates, the fully shaped balloon stayed more or less in place, its hanging basket quivering a foot or so off the ground while the professor and Major General Fitz John Porter climbed through taut ropes into the basket, telescopes and maps tucked underarms.

Lowe set about checking ropes, rigging, connections, taking particular care with what was obviously the emergency release value. Porter stood trying, and succeeding, to look businesslike – as if all Corps commanders routinely took balloon rides. At last Lowe (who I suspected was as much county fair huckster than accredited professor) doffed his top hat to the crowd. The at least two companies worth of rope handlers began to slowly release the lines following the pantomimed instructions of Lowe’s earthbound assistant as he went through a series of hand signals and body contortions that would have put a world-class maestro to shame.

It did not take all that long for the professor and the general to ascended to the heavens, or at least 100 feet over the Warwick. Their mission: to map the Confederate trenches, note our crawling siege lines and give us some heretofor unexplained advantage. The scene was as bucolic as ever a Romanticist could hope, men filed into the clearing, festooned the fences, and watched the sky. Some in simple awe, some with an intensity that indicated they knew they would be relating scene to their grandchildren.

Joinville slid off our fence and began to set up his easel and canvas. I wandered over, peered over his shoulder as annoyingly as possible. He pushed me off, I looked up, Lowe was hanging half over the rim of the basket playing with a rope, looking for all the world as if he would soon be a free-falling professor of aeronautic possibilities. Every eye in both armies were undoubtedly on him as he teetered. With exquisite timing, he righted himself, engaged in some machinations below the lip of the basket, sent a small bundle up the lanyard along the side of the balloon, made a show pulling a string, and a moment later an over-sized Stars and Stripes snapped in breezes of a higher altitude.

Cheers – raucous cheers – broke out, men exulted in the sight and symbolism of the high flying flag for long minutes . . . might well gone on indefinitely had it not been truncated rudely when the not so inspired rebels began to fire at the balloon.

They sent bursting shells that came nowhere near – who, after all, had ever tried to hit a non-stationary object in mid-air? – succeeded only in littering the ground in a mile radius with shell fragments. As unsatisfied with their results as we were amused, they changed to solid shot – easy to follow through the crystalline sky – that missed wildly, flew well over the balloon and our lines to fall somewhere in our rear to do harm only to recently ploughed fields and feral pigs.

It was wonderful viewing, highly entertaining, certainly harmless, a perfect diversion from the boredom of a siege. We laughed, pointed, delighted in the rebel misses, gross inefficiencies, poor aiim, bad science. Then some genius behind the rebel lines, God knows with what reasoning, decided to try mortars. He no doubt reasoned that a shell going straight up would have a better chance plunging straight down through Professor Lowe’s fragile invention. And it might well have, had we lived in a two dimensional world. In our reality, however, the mortars had as much chance of hitting the swaying balloon as a man-of-war had hitting a pinata in a typhoon.

We watched the fat, slow, wobbly, mortar shell arch high into the ether, laughed when it became, readily, apparent it would miss by a hundred yards along at least one geometric plane. Those with the sharpest eyesight were the first to quiet, the first to edge away from the clearing, drawing little notice from those holding the ropes and blinded by the Stars and Stripes.

I followed the easily tracked shell, had fielded enough pop at third base to realize what any good outfielder would have realized a minute earlier: it was coming straight down, dead center of our clearing.

At least one man in the rope line had an acute sense of mathematics and self-preservation and immediately dropped the rope and bolted for the tree line seconds before a smoking oversized, misshapen bowling ball splattered into the sod a little left of center, spewing dirt, grass, and no longer amused privates. The shell sputtered, smoked, and hissed piteously.

Facts that not go unnoticed by the rest of them man holding Intrepid, in seconds the clearing was cleared of blue clad tethers, their lines ten feet off the ground, rising, and proving any number of Newtonian laws – as of course did the Intrepid, flying now that it had lost its connections to the Earth.

The shell let out a dying ‘pummmfffft’ and sat, benign. Having had rather more experience with mortar shells than the vast majority of my comrades, and sure it was a dud for certain, I was the first to walk into the center of the field, one eye on the ground for divots, the other at the shrinking balloon. I was joined by Joinville, we watch as the Intrepid gained still more altitude, its tethers now well above the tree tops, the whole kit and caboodle headed for Yorktown.

“That bodes ill,” Joinville remarked with a measure of awe.

“Pretty, though,” I replied.

“Indeed.”

“You get much of it down before your subject left?”

“Not enough,” he tsked,“it is rather difficult to finish a watercolor when one’s model has fled so precipitously.”

“Never happened before, eh?”

“Well,” he considered, “there was a woman in Cologne, once, she –” he stopped, the better to hear distant cheering from the rebels behind their works, “they can not think they had something to do with Porter floating over to them, can they?”

“Indirectly, they aren’t wrong,” I pointed out.

“Perhaps – there is really nothing we can do, is there?”

“Absent a spare balloon in which to follow, no..”

“Pity.”

Like every soul, North and South, we watched with appropriate body language the drama that played out that afternoon. Like the ball in a good lawn tennis match the Intrepid went back and forth evenly, North of the Warwick, south of the Warwick, over the York, back on the Peninsula and back again. Finally, the sun beginning to set, she was blown securely over to our side of the Warwick and quickly descended. We followed the descent at a fast walk to see her nestle softly to the ground in another field less than two miles from where it all started. We were there to watch Major General Porter return to the correct Army, ashen, but none the worse for wear.

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