How Far Could Civil War Balloonists See?

How the landscape across the Potomac River from Edwards Ferry, Maryland, would have looked to a Civil War “aeronaut.” See below for interactive 360-degree view. (Visualization by

Ordinarily you would find Jim Green at NASA headquarters in Washington, where, as the agency’s Chief Scientist, he helps plan the future exploration of the cosmos. But on an unseasonably warm day last February, Green’s mind was on the past. Along with Tom Crouch, a senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum, and a team of balloonist/photographers, he traveled to a riverbank in rural Maryland to try to answer a simple question: How well could Civil War balloonists see their enemy?

Green has more than a passing interest in the subject. He’s an expert on Thaddeus Lowe, the aeronaut who headed the Union Army’s balloon corps during the war. “Jim will probably be the one to write the definitive book [on Lowe],” says Crouch, who should know, since he’s an expert on Civil War ballooning himself.


The real Professor Lowe making a balloon ascent in 1862. (Library of Congress)

From their launch point at Edwards Ferry on the Potomac River, Curt Westergard and his team from in Falls …

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(The opinions in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Southern Nation News or SN.O.)

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