In June of 1861, a full month before Congress authorized the call for 500,000 men to join the war, President Abraham Lincoln spent an afternoon looking at a balloon.
Aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe took to the National Mall to give a demonstration for the president to show how aeronautics could assist with the war effort. Some 120 miles away in Lancaster, Dr. John Wise was hot on Lowe’s heels.
Born in 1808, Wise parlayed an early interest in hot air balloons into several successful – and unsuccessful – early balloon flights. In 1835, Wise attempted a flight from his hometown in Lancaster, but was thrown from the basket and knocked unconscious as the balloon ascended without him. He tried again the next year, successfully making it to Harford County, Maryland. This time, Wise was burned during a hydrogen gas explosion.
One of Wise’s pre-war accomplishments was completing the first local airmail trip, delivering 123 letters from Lafayette, Indiana, to Crawfordsville, Indiana, though he had initially planned on making it to Philadelphia or New York City. Since aeronautics was still in its infancy, balloonists like Wise, Lowe and John LaMountain of New York all fought to be declared Chief Aeronaut of the emerging Union army. By July of 1861, Wise had undercut his rivals by $200 and made his way to Washington D.C. Here’s the Lancaster Intelligencer’s take from the time:
“The celebrated Aeronaut, Prof. Wise, and his son, Charley, a ‘chip o’ the old block,’ left for the seat of war on Wednesday evening last, having in charge his newly-constructed War Balloon, intended for governmental purposes. It is a complete affair in every respect. Mr. W. is desirous that the Government should have a locomotive-inflating apparatus made for decomposing water, so that it may travel with the balloon, drawn by a pair of horses. By this means the balloon can be inflated at any place where fuel can be provided.”
“We are glad the Government has secured so able and competent a person as our friend Wise in this department of the service — the description of his apparatus showing that he knows exactly what is wanted, and that he is, emphatically, ‘the right man in the right place.’”
With plans in place, Wise attempted aerial espionage during the Battle of Manassas. Here’s an account of that attempt, according to a letter from an eye-witness:
“Dear Sir: Your fellow citizen, Prof. John Wise, commenced inflating his balloon at 10 o’clock on Saturday evening last on the grounds near the Smithsonian Institute in the presence of a number of scientific gentlemen. It was a clear and beautiful moonlight night, and about 8 o’clock, Sunday morning, the balloon and “fixins” were in complete readiness for an observation. — Twenty fully armed soldiers were then detailed from the U.S. Armory to conduct the balloon to Centreville. The expedition started under the command of Major Meyers, and proceeded up Pennsylvania Avenue to Georgetown, crossed the Potomac on the Aqueduct, and reached Arlington Heights about 6 o’clock, where Mr. Wise ascended to make an observation; but he was doomed to disappointment, as the roar to cannon was distinctly heard here, and the clouds of dust and smoke confirmed the commencement of the great battle, thirty miles distant at Manassas Junction, between two immense armies of brethren contending for the Union, or Mason and Dixon’s line. Mr. Wise proceeded no further.”
The Battle of Bull Run would be Wise’s last official ascent on behalf of the U.S. government. In August of 1861, Wise’s rival Lowe was named commander of the U.S. Balloon Corps by President Lincoln, before the Corps itself was shut down only two years later. As for John Wise, his aeronautics career would continue, though his tests were largely marked by failure. In 1879, at the age of 71, Wise and a passenger named George Burr would go up in the air for one last balloon flight. Departing from East St. Louis, the balloon was last seen flying over Lake Michigan. Eventually, Burr’s body would be found floating in Lake Michigan, but Wise – and his balloon – would never be seen again.