Special Report

Civil War Artifacts in the Smithsonian

The museum collections house many items from the Civil War, including photographs, uniforms and personal diaries

Lincoln's Top Hat (National Museum of American History)

Lincoln Letter, National Air and Space Museum

Abraham Lincoln letter
(National Air and Space Museum)

This letter, from the Air and Space Museum Archives and written by Abraham Lincoln, proposes the use of aeronaut Thaddeus S.C. Lowe’s balloons for reconnaissance during the Civil War. The text reads, “Will Lieut. Gen. Scott please see Professor Lowe once more about his balloon? A. Lincoln July 25, 1861.” Joseph Henry, the Secretary of the Smithsonian from 1846 to 1878, was a strong supporter of scientific exploration, which led to a relationship with Lowe. “With Henry’s help, [Lowe] talked the war department into giving the Smithsonian $200 to see what a balloon can do,” explains senior curator Tom Crouch. “On June 18, 1861, Lowe sent a telegraph [from his balloon] to the White House describing what he could see [from his vantage point]. After speaking with Lowe, Lincoln was convinced that he wanted a balloon corps.” Gen. Winfield Scott, however, had no faith in balloons, so he kept avoiding Lowe. Hearing of his general’s reluctance, Lincoln sent this letter, which served as a catalyst for Scott to finally accept the presence of Lowe and ballooning. Lowe’s effort produced seven balloons for the Union Army and ushered in, says Crouch, “the birth of aerial reconnaissance.”

by Jamie Simon


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