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Union Army observation balloon grounded due to lightning within five miles

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The following is an article by author Malachi Alvord van Kirk from the September 1861 issue of Duffel Blog’s Civil War-era predecessor, The Knapsack Gazette.

FORT CORCORAN, Va. — Union Army Balloon Corps chief Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe recently had to ground his observation balloon due to the occurrence of lightning within five nautical miles of post.

“Not this balderdash again,” Prof. Lowe said to his men angrily, according to witnesses. “It’s not even raining out!”

Per the accounts of several soldiers, an otherwise boresome watch took a bizarre turn when volunteer Smithsonian meteorological observer and Union Army Pvt. Wiley Ehrman noticed a thunderstorm approaching the fortification from the west around noontime today, right as the balloon finished inflating.

Upon spotting a bolt of lightning between his observation point and a landmark located three miles away, Pvt. Ehrman sent a weather warning via messenger pigeon to the telegraph operator, who then relayed it verbally to the Balloon Corps and then via telegram to the Smithsonian. This halted Prof. Lowe’s intended takeoff and prompted his maintenance crew to seek cover indoors.

“Now my plans for the day are dashed all to pieces because that self-important coot claims he saw a bit of lightning,” the angry chief aeronaut told reporters.

Thaddeus S.C. Lowe and his civilian crew have been stationed at Fort Corcoran since late July. During this time, they have been building and testing a prototype balloon for the Union Army and keeping an eye on Confederate forces outside of the District of Columbia. Unfortunately, today’s flight was interrupted by unfavorable weather, frustrating Prof. Lowe and drawing the attention of Gen. George McClellan — who was also planning to ascend.

“Ehrman, I need you to cancel that lightning warning so we can fly,” McClellan was seen telling the young private upon the latter’s return to his instrument room. “We have a real-world mission to deal with right now.”

“I’m afraid I cannot do that, sir,” Ehrman said, citing the Smithsonian’s Directions for Meteorological Observations – Supplement for Aerial Weather Services. “I must wait until 15 minutes after the last occurrence of lightning before canceling the warning.”

“I don’t have time for this poppycock,” Lowe said before he and McClellan went back to the launch site. “A few frightful clouds won’t deter me.”

Witnesses say that he and Gen. McClellan then boarded and launched the aerial ship while the lightning warning was still in effect.

“Technically, I can’t stop Prof. Lowe and the general from flying if they so desire,” Pvt. Ehrman told the Gazette. “But they can’t accuse me of not having warned them if disaster does strike.”

At press time, a violent downdraft from the collapsing storm buffeted and ruptured the balloon, causing it to crash. Lowe and McClellan survived with minor scrapes and bruises, and are expected to make a full recovery.

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