By Adam Rosenfeld
While the City of Falls Church may get passing mentions in many textbooks, it was the backdrop for two of the most innovative moments in the history of aerial reconnaissance.
“Falls Church made aeronautical history twice during the Civil War,” local historian and author Bradley Gernand said. “And both times it involved hot air balloons.”
During the early years of the war, the little town was being held by the Confederates, and the Union needed a way to understand the size of their encampment.
With the help of Professor Thaddeus Lowe, known as the father of aerial reconnaissance, they sent up a hot air balloon from Chain Bridge to scout the Confederate army.
While the first flight was reserved for reconnaissance, the second trip had a more ingenious purpose.
“The army had a cannon on the ground and was going to fire on Falls Church, but at this time they had never fired on a target they could not visibly see,” Gernand said. “So, they devised a system of signal flags, and they sent Professor Lowe up in his balloon to tell them how close their fire was. He would position the flags to then signal in which direction they would need to fire the next time.”
Those first few flights not only created history but contained popular historical figures.
General George Custer, known for his famous “Last Stand” during the Battle of Little Bighorn later in the 19th century, was in one such trip.
“General Custer went up in the basket from Falls Church, but he got sick because it was constantly twisting, and he claimed he never wanted to go aloft again,” Gernand said.
The fighting eventually shifted to other areas of the country, but the ramifications of these events were felt throughout the rest of the war.
After the Confederates caught wind of the ingenuity of the Union army, they decided to craft their own balloons.
An unofficial national project began in which Confederate housewives took donations of everyday cloth in order to stitch together a balloon from scratch.
Unfortunately, the usefulness of hot air balloons was often outweighed by their impracticality. Not only did the person flying the contraption have little control over its movements, but it had to be inflated every time someone wanted to use it.
Professor Thaddeus Lowe, who coined the term aeronaut to describe himself, not only spurred a change in how hot air balloons were utilized, but also the way armies strategized.
Even though militaries no longer use balloons to scout enemies, the legacy of his innovations are evident today in the popularity of surveillance drones and satellites.
“These events made an impact in illustrating what could be done with aeronautical surveillance,” Gernand said. “The success of the experiment at Chain bridge made it a mainstay of every war.”
This is the third in a series of articles by the News-Press highlighting landmarks and curiosities around the Falls Church area. Have an idea for a future article? Send your suggestions to us at [email protected]