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Posts tagged with: Civil War
Throughout the next months, the Smithsonian Institution Archives will feature posts related to the Smithsonian and the Civil War in honor of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.
One hundred and fifty years ago, on June 18, 1861, a balloon ascended on the National Mall at the spot where the National Air and Space Museum is located today and, later, from sites near the Smithsonian Castle and White House. Although watching balloon ascents had become a popular pastime since the first one was sent aloft by Joseph and Jacques-Ètienne Montgolfier in 1783, this event was specifically designed to demonstrate the utility of using balloons for military intelligence.
The balloon was piloted by Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, founder of the first aerial reconnaissance unit for the U.S. military. Even before the Civil War, Lowe had turned to the Smithsonian for advice about ballooning. In December of 1860, a group of sixteen citizens from Philadelphia wrote to Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry asking that the Smithsonian support Lowe’s experiments in ballooning, especially his planned attempt to cross the Atlantic. Henry was dubious that such ambitious aerial navigation was possible, and the Smithsonian Board of Regents declined to provide financial aid for the experiment.
Lowe, however, knowing the importance of air currents for steering balloons was also interested in meteorology. And familiar with the Smithsonian’s Meteorological Project, forerunner of the U.S. Weather Service, he wrote directly to Secretary Henry on February 25, 1861, asking for information about air currents that might aid balloon navigation. In his reply of March 11th, Henry wrote, “I have never had faith in any of the plans proposed for navigating the atmosphere, by artificial propulsion, or of steering a balloon in a direction different from that of the the current in which the vehicle is floating.” Despite his skepticism, Henry did provide what information he had available.
But by May 28th, and with the nation at war, Henry was more encouraging to Lowe, asking him to pursue the use of balloons for aerial reconnaissance around the Nation’s capital. Henry saw real potential for military aerial reconnaissance, since a balloon’s movement could be confined to a small area and the pilot could use the telegraph, one of Henry’s great interests, to send back results to those watching and waiting below. Over the next month, Henry introduced Lowe to President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of War Simon Cameron, and other government officials, and provided him with additional advice. For reconnaissance purposes, the balloon would be tethered to a military wagon and towed in a twenty mile radius as the pilot used binoculars to survey the region. Henry suggested that “aeronauts” observe the topography, to aid in Union troop movement, and assess Confederate troop movement, supplies, and strength. The observations from the air would then be telegraphed down to a station below, providing real time aerial reconnaissance. Secretary Henry had been a key player in the discovery of electromagnetism and the invention of the telegraph, so he provided advice on how to establish this telegraphic network.
After Henry observed the June 18th test flight—which demonstrated that successful telegraph communications were possible on far longer lines than previously believed—he became a staunch advocate of Lowe’s work which soon led to the creation of a Balloon Corps within the Union Army. The aeronauts successfully located Confederate forces, reported on force strength, and directed artillery fire at Confederate positions. While some generals at the time and historians today question the value of the Balloon Corps, its observations forced the Confederates to spend resources and time camouflaging their encampments and allayed Washingtonian’s fears of imminent invasion on more than one occasion.
In June, the National Air and Space Museum recreated the historic balloon test. Learn more about this story from NASM’s curator Tom Crouch, who has written on the history of ballooning, and see other objects relating to Thaddeus Lowe in the Smithsonian’s collections.
Throughout the next months, the Smithsonian Institution Archives will be posting about the Smithsonian and the Civil War in honor of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. The Smithsonian Institution is governed by a Board of Regents as provided for in the Congressional act that created the Smithsonian in 1846. In the 1860s, the Board consisted of six citizens from across the nation, three representatives and three senators from the US Congress, the vice-president, chief justice of the Supreme Court, and the mayor of the city of Washington. A quiet and stable group for the Institution’s first fifteen years, the outbreak of the Civil War led to an almost complete turnover of board members. During this time of great crisis, the first Smithsonian Secretary, Joseph Henry, was left to face serious challenges without the support of a strong board. And when the war ended in 1865, the board had a decidedly northern and midwestern character that would define it for decades. Problems began in January of 1861, when six southern states seceded, and Congress was too preoccupied to pass the resolutions necessary to appoint three new regents to fill existing vacancies. In March, Cornelius Felton, a citizen regent from Massachusetts who had served since 1856, was finally reappointed and could provide some continuity. William L. Dayton, a citizen regent from New Jersey, replaced Richard Rush of Philadelphia. (Rush, a major force in the creation of the Smithsonian, and the attorney who prosecuted the United States’ claim to James Smithson’s estate in the British Court of Chancery, and had served actively on the board since the Institution’s founding in 1846. William B. Astor, a citizen from New York, replaced another original board member, Gideon Hawley, whose term was not renewed at his request. Both had been strong supporters of the Smithsonian and active members of the board. And with the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln on March 4th, Vice President Hannibal Hamlin (of Maine) replaced the outgoing Vice President John Cabell Breckinridge (of Kentucky). As the war erupted in April 1861, the Board of Regents experienced a major upheaval, with more members leaving the Board over the course of the year. Several were expelled for their loyalty to the Confederacy, including Lucius Jeremiah Gartrell, a US Representative from Georgia, and James Murray Mason, a US Senator from Virginia. In June, the board lost another strong supporter when Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois died. Douglas had been appointed to the board in 1854 and had been an advocate for the Institution in the Congress. Senator Lyman Trumbull, also of Illinois, replaced him and would continue on the Board until 1873. Later that year, the mayor of Washington, DC, resigned, and two northern congressional representatives did not continue. As the war wore on, yet another member was expelled for “giving aid and comfort to the enemies of the Government.” Other strong supporters were also lost, including Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, who had been a Smithsonian regent from 1847 to 1851, and was a close friend of Secretary Henry. Over the next four years, Secretary Henry faced many crises, without the experienced Board support he had come to rely on. The Treasury paid the interest on Smithson’s endowment in devalued currency, not gold, and payments were often made late. The paper currency had far less purchasing power than gold, and Assistant Secretary Spencer Baird wrote that "all superfluous expenditures were to be lopped off, and the most rigid economy exercised." When appropriations for the museum were cut, Henry threatened to close the museum’s doors. Other cutbacks included the International Exchange Service which distributed scientific publications across the US and abroad. Both the unsettled conditions and loss of funding made it difficult to maintain a shipping network of publications, especially to the American south. At one point, Henry appealed to the Congress to take over the national museum, to reduce financial demands on the Smithsonian. Fortunately, that request fell on deaf ears. In coming months watch for subsequent posts in which we’ll trace the various challenges and crises the Smithsonian faced during the Civil War. For more information, visit our website on the Smithsonian and the Civil War.
Throughout the next months, the Smithsonian Institution Archives will be posting about the Smithsonian and the Civil War in honor of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. Not surprisingly, like any large organization, the Smithsonian has always used a lot of paper in its daily operations. But did you know that the Smithsonian had what was, most likely, one of the earlier organizational recycling programs in the U.S.? We thought that Earth Day would be the perfect time to revisit the Smithsonian’s first forays into green practices. The Smithsonian’s first secretary, Joseph Henry, and his staff conducted a large amount of domestic and international correspondence. They wrote to agents, donors, and recipients who participated in the Smithsonian’s international publications exchange; the Institution’s large network of volunteer meteorological observers; scientists and military officers on expeditions and surveys; speakers in its lecture series; and numerous other individuals, government officials, and scientific organizations. The Smithsonian was also a major publisher, which required large amounts of paper not only for correspondence with authors, illustrators, referees, and printers, but for manuscripts, proofs, and the finished articles and books. During the Civil War, the Smithsonian found itself challenged on many fronts, not the least of which was a significant jump in the cost of paper. The increase coincided with a cessation of income from the Smithsonian’s investments in southern state bonds; delays in receiving federally appropriated funds for the care of the national collections; and the receipt of the interest on its endowment, deposited in the U.S. Treasury, in devalued currency rather than gold.
At the end of December 1862, Secretary Henry took action. He sent a memo to the staff asking that baskets be placed in every room of the Smithsonian Building or “Castle” for the collection of waste paper, which would then be sold. In so doing, Henry launched what was probably the Smithsonian’s first recycling program. Given that a fire in the building some two years later destroyed most of the Institution’s records since its founding, it is perhaps not surprising that this memo wasn’t found within the voluminous institutional records at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. It was actually found by the Smithsonian Institution Archives’ Joseph Henry Papers Project staff many years ago in the National Archives, among correspondence from the Institution’s meteorological observers in the records of the Weather Bureau. Today, the Smithsonian’s recycling efforts continue. And while the Smithsonian Institution Archives recognizes the importance of paper and the history it documents, it fully supports current efforts to recycle waste paper and other reusable products. Smithsonian staff can contact the Archives and Information Management Team if they have trouble distinguishing between which paper (and electronic) documents should be saved and which can be recycled. If you live in the D.C. area and would like to help some of the Smithsonian non-paper-based recycling efforts, you can bring your electronics to the front desk at the National Zoo as part of their Recycle at the Zoo program, which helps safely recycle electronics while earning money for conservation. Kathleen W. Dorman, is a Research Associate in the Institutional History Division of the Smithsonian Institution Archives and former Associate Editor of the Joseph Henry Papers Project.
Kathy Dorman is a Research Associate at the Smithsonian Institution.
Throughout the next months, the Smithsonian Institution Archives will be posting about the Smithsonian and the Civil War in honor of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.
This month marks the 150th anniversary of the start of one of the most tumultuous periods in American history—the Civil War (view resources from the Smithsonian about the Civil War). The Smithsonian Castle, located in the nation’s capital, sat at the center of many of the great battles of the War and was affected in many and varied ways. Over the coming months, our series of Civil War blog posts will take you back to those days, and you will see how the War affected the Smithsonian and the people who lived and worked there. You will read their letters and diaries, and get to know the individuals who kept the Institution on a steady course during those challenging times.
In 1861, the Smithsonian consisted of a single building, the Castle, located on a vacant section of land adjoining Virginia, cut off from downtown by the Washington canal. Although the National Mall is now an international destination, at this time it was a fetid swamp. The Tidal Basin area had not yet been filled in, so the tall Castle was a target vulnerable to attack from nearby Virginia where Confederate troops were amassing. The nearby Long Bridge across the Potomac to Virginia provided them an easy route to the towering red stone building along the river. The young Institution, only fifteen years old in 1861, was just beginning to fully develop its programs, when the impending hostilities threatened to halt its progress. 150 years ago today, on April 20, 1861, Secretary of War Simon Cameron issued an order that “the Colonel of Ordnance will cause to be issued to Professor Henry of the Smithsonian Institute twelve muskets and 240 rounds of ammunition for the protection of the Institute against lawless attacks.” We have no evidence that the muskets and ammunition were ever used in defense of the Castle, but the order reflects the unrest unfolding in the country. The first soldiers killed in the Civil War had been attacked by a secessionist mob in Baltimore. In the nation’s capital, public buildings were barricaded and sandbagged, and volunteer militia patrolled the city. “Professor J. Henry” was Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry (1797-1878), who had spent the last fifteen years organizing the new organization and was now responsible for leading the Institution through violent and chaotic times. As volunteers flooded Washington, the Secretary of War also suggested that the Castle be used to house the new soldiers. Henry expressed his concerns, especially because of the Institution’s peaceful purpose and valuable collections, and suggested that the building serve as an infirmary instead. Other accommodations for the troops were found and the Castle survived the ordeal. Joseph Henry worried not only for the safety of the Smithsonian but for his own family, who lived in the east wing of the Castle and the cadre of young explorers who lived in its towers. From the turrets, the Henry family and staff could watch battles rage around the city, and in the months to come, you’ll read their accounts of those difficult days.
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