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War balloons get a proper send-up

Kevin Knapp talks to a crowd about Civil War ballooning in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.
Kevin Knapp talks to a crowd about Civil War ballooning in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.

WASHINGTON – The National Mall on Saturday was the place to be for Civil War balloon enthusiasts John DePerro, 68, and David DePerro, 39, of Warrenton, Va.

The father and son have read all the books on Civil War ballooning, and on Saturday they came to see a partially inflated military balloon right outside the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The balloon was placed steps away from a refreshment stand, where famous Civil War balloonist Thaddeus Lowe originally showed President Abraham Lincoln how to use balloons for reconnaissance on June 18, 1861. He went up in a balloon and telegraphed reports to the White House. Lincoln was fascinated and gave the go-ahead to form the Union Balloon Corps.

Actors in Civil War garb, representing the likes of Lincoln, Lowe and some Union Balloon Corps teamsters, mingled with visitors and talked about the history of ballooning.

A small balloon hooked up to a camera took aerial pictures above the Mall.

David DePerro got his book on military ballooning signed by the author, Tom Crouch, a senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum.

Crouch said the site was where American airpower began, and Civil War balloons are the direct ancestors of today’s Air Force.

“It’s kind of neat that there’s a historic aerospace event right where the museum is,” Crouch said. “It’s right in our backyard.”

Union soldiers ascended about 3,000 times in seven balloons during the Civil War. In Iraq and Afghanistan today, tethered balloons are still sent up with sensors and communication gear by U.S. troops, Crouch said.

Phil Gibbons, 43, of Linden, Va., was dressed as a Union soldier. He brought authentic wagons that were built from Army blueprints. They carried authentic blue wooden boxes used to produce hydrogen for the balloons by mixing sulfuric acid with iron filings. He said he was impressed by the event.

“The balloon and basket has been done before,” Gibbons said, “but they did a good job of replicating the original boxes. No one else has ever done this as far as I know, with the wagons and the boxes together.”


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