Whatever military secrets he learned about aerial reconnaissance, Joseph Wilson enthusiastically blurted them to his parents in mid-June 1862.
But who could blame the strapping 24-year-old Belfast farmer, for how many Maine men had ever seen a balloon, much less inflated or guarded one?
Wilson had generational roots in Belfast, where grandfather John Wilson had practiced law, entertained Daniel Webster, and represented Massachusetts in the 13th and 15th Congresses. John and his progeny evidently favored the letter “J”; son John married Eliza Townsend, and among their sons were Jefferson, Jesse, John, Jones, Joseph, Julius and Justus.
On April 29, 1861, the 5-10 1/2 Joseph Wilson joined Co. K, 4th Maine Infantry Regiment. Probably a blond, Wilson had blue eyes and a light complexion. He fought at Manassas that July.
Joe Wilson marched with the 4th Maine during George McClellan’s interminable advance toward Richmond in spring 1862. Traveling with the Army of the Potomac was Professor Thaddeus Sobieski Coulincort Lowe, the United States Army’s chief aeronaut.
Equipped with three balloons — the smaller Constitution and Washington and the larger Intrepid — Lowe inaugurated wartime aerial reconnaissance as he and other aeronauts spied on Confederate positions while floating 1,000 to 1,500 feet above the forested Tidewater. Union officers clamored to join Lowe aboard the two-man Intrepid; among the officers accommodated by Lowe was George Armstrong Custer, who found the experience frightening.
He was afraid of heights.
To launch a balloon, Lowe needed men to operate the inflation equipment and to hold the tethers that kept a balloon from drifting away with the prevailing breeze. Among the Union soldiers assigned to assist and guard Lowe during the Peninsula Campaign were the 4th Maine Infantry’s Lt. Arthur Libby, Joe Wilson and 27 other enlisted soldiers from Co. B.
Addressing a letter to “Dear Father & Mother” on June 15, Wilson identified his location as “Prof. Lowe’s Balloon, Richmond,” an upbeat assessment about Federal odds on capturing the Confederate capital. “I … write a few lines to let you know that I am well, and hope that … you and the rest of the family [are] enjoying the same great blessing.”
Besides guarding the balloon and handling its guide ropes during ascents, Wilson helped inflate the balloon’s bag. “We have two tanks which will hold 20 hogsheads [approximately 168 1/2 cubic feet] and they are all on wheels,” Wilson explained to his probably disbelieving parents. “We can move them [tanks] wherever we want to and as we have to use considerable water we set them near some stream and move the balloon within 20 feet of them.”
Connecting the tanks with gutta-percha pipe, the soldiers then “put in iron blueings (sic) which they get from the [iron] foundries and then we put in a lot of water and then we put in oil of vitriol which makes the gas,” Wilson wrote.
“It generally takes four to six hours to inflate the balloon,” he reported.
While Wilson and his comrades guarded Lowe and his balloon, Southern gunners often fired at the balloon during its ascents. “You wished to know if I was exposed to any more danger here than I should be in Regiment No. 3, I will just say that we are not, although we are in some danger,” Wilson informed his parents.
“It consists of bombshells. We very often get a few shells from the Rebs when the balloon is up, but as yet, they have not done any danger,” he wrote.
Lowe differed with that opinion. On May 30, Confederate gunners “masked 12 of their best rifle-cannon” by rolling them backward into a ditch so the cannon barrels pointed into the sky approximately where the Yankee balloon should appear.
The Confederate gunners had created history’s first antiaircraft artillery battery. “While [I was] taking an early morning observation” in the balloon “Washington” near Mechanicsville, “all the 12 guns were simultaneously discharged at short range, some of the shells passing through the rigging of the balloon and nearly all bursting not more than 200 feet beyond me, showing that through spies they had gotten my base of operations and range perfectly.
“I changed my base, and they never came so near destroying the balloon or capturing me after that,” Lowe wrote.
He possibly referred to shifting his base into a deep gulch, where his 4th Maine Infantry guards camped “in the edge of a [nearby] grove,” Wilson indicated. The Maine boys kept a close watch on the deflated balloon, which they kept “anchored down with 35 bags of sand” weighing “50 to 75 pounds apiece.”
Before sunrise on May 31, “I took another observation” from the Washington, “continuing the same until the sun lighted up the roads,” Lowe reported. “The atmosphere was perfectly clear. I … soon discovered one, then two, and then three columns of troops with artillery and ammunition wagons” advancing to attack Union divisions deployed at Seven Pines. Savage fighting took place there all day.
In his June 15 letter, Wilson made no mention about Lowe’s May 31 activities. As the battle continued on June 1, Lowe “was up fifteen times, and then there has to be a guard kept over the Prof’s tent and another over the Balloon, which consists of one man at a time, which stands an hour apiece,” Wilson wrote.
That Sunday, the Maine soldiers handled the balloon as they did on other days. “When it is calm we take her [the balloon] and carry her up the hill nearby and unhook the bags and attach four ropes, 1,000 feet long, which are coiled down in tubs,” Wilson wrote. The soldiers holding each rope gradually let “the slack away on them, and up she goes.
“Sometimes higher than others, but never over a thousand feet,” he told his parents. Then he informed them that “I have just come off guard duty, so I will finish my letter … well, as there isn’t much more room, I will have to bring this letter to a close, and please give my love to all and accept the love of your son.”
Wilson and the other 4th Maine boys would enjoy a relatively quiet 11 days until Robert E. Lee ordered large-scale Confederate attacks against Union troops at nearby Beaver Dam Creek on June 26. That assault and the next day’s blood-letting at Gaines’s Mills sent Lowe flying, literally by air to report on Confederate troop movements and then figuratively by horse and wagon as the Army of the Potomac withdrew to Harrison’s Landing.
As for Joe Wilson, he would survive the retreat and the war to outlive all his brothers except for Jefferson. Joe died on Nov. 9, 1909; he was survived by his wife, Austina, and their two sons, Byron and John.
Brian Swartz is the BDN special sections editor. An avid Civil War buff, he has extensively explored and photographed Civil War battlefields throughout the South. Swartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his blog at http://maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.