Fitz-John Porter's Balloon Ride

from Eye of the Storm written and illustrated by Private Robert Knox Sneden

Private Robert Knox Sneden was a member of the 40th New York "Mozart" Regiment. This entry is from April 12, 1862. The balloon referred to is Professor Lowe's famous observation balloon.

...This morning at 7 a.m. cries of "the balloon is loose" and "look at her"... startled most of us at headquarters while crowds of soldiers came running from all directions out of the woods to the front of the open plain to see it sail gracefully away high in [the] air with two long ropes dangling from the car or basket. It was going swiftly straight for Yorktown. All had our conjectures as to what it was going that way for. It rose two miles or more when about three quarters way across the immense open ground in our front struck an upper current of air and came slowly back to our lines in a slanting direction and suddenly dropped down in the woods where Birney's brigade were in camp. General Fitz-John Porter after a while made his appearance from that quarter, accompanied by three or four officers of Birney's staff to report to General Heintzelman.

The balloon had been moved since it had been fired on yesterday to his headquarters half a mile or so back of the sawmill. The ropes being securely fastened to a tree, Porter had ascended there yesterday to observe the enemy. This morning he unloosed one rope which held the balloon leaving one to hold it and tried to ascend again by himself. When the balloon arose the rope broke and set him free. He had been up with Lowe the balloonist many times before, but the idea of being loose and sailing at such a swift rate through the air had confused him, and he did not know how to manage a balloon either. It was dead calm on the earth's surface, but the balloon moved very rapidly nevertheless. As he passed over our heads ... we shouted "pull the valve," but he did not heed or hear us. Lowe soon came up on horseback and went after his balloon. ... The Rebels would have been delighted to have got the balloon with Fitz-John in it. We at headquarters did not care as long as they did not get the balloon.

...The balloon rose to about 1,600 feet [and] sailed across the plateau in our front and to [the] right over Yorktown. The general crouched down in the car as volleys of rifle balls were fired at the balloon by the enemy as the car descended lower down and directly over their works. Porter now threw over all the sand bag ballast attached to the balloon, when it rose quickly to a great height and striking an upper adverse current came sailing slowly back to us again to the camps of Birney's [brigade] below the sawmill. Porter, fearing that he would be carried beyond to the James River unless he could descend, became desperate, climbed out of the car and gave the valve line a hard jerk, which opened the valve wide. It also made him lose his grip on the ropes and he fell into the basket, one half of his body hanging over the side with the balloon 2,000 feet above the earth! Porter now was aware that he had pulled the valve too wide as the balloon now began to fall very rapidly and with a fearful rush, he could not close the valve again for the rope was far out of his reach away above his head in the netting. Even if he had the strength to reach it, he could not climb up and get it.

The balloon now began to be as limp as a rag and was tossing from side to side, but was descending straight into the camp. Seeing a large tree beneath him he took his chances for life by jumping into it, and in a second was hanging in the branches by one arm and leg, completely enfolded by the shattered balloon with the escaping gas filling his lungs at every breath. Help was at hand, however, and he was rescued by the soldiers of Birney's troops. The balloon was torn away, and he was lowered to the ground in an exhausted condition...

On investigating, it was found that both ropes which held the balloon had become corroded by contact with the acid wagon tops, by which the gas is manufactured, and broke at the jerk when the balloon had got to the end of its tether. New ropes were of course attached to it. General Porter investigated the cause of the balloon ropes so suddenly snapping off when he made the ascent, and found out that the sergeant who had been detailed from the 50th New York engineer regiment had had some hard words with his captain who had charge of the balloon the evening previous. The sergeant, therefore, smeared the ropes with acid from the gas making wagon, which ate the ropes so that they broke like loose tow. As the captain generally made the ascent at an early hour, ...the sergeant thought it would be a good thing for him to get loose once and go anywhere or nowhere. But the captain was not on the ground until later, when General Porter decided to go up alone. So he was carried off instead of the captain.