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 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, including 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.
"This is a really cool event," John DePerro said.
David DePerro even 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 back yard."
Union soldiers ascended about 3,000 times in seven balloons during the Civil War. In Iraq and Afghanistan East today, tethered balloons are still sent up with sensors and communication gear by U.S. troops, Crouch said.
William Brown, 59, and his grandson Kaden Brown, 5, of Baltimore happened upon the balloon while walking around the Mall. Kaden had been looking at the small balloon above the mall all morning.
"My grandson wanted to go up, but I don't think they're going to let us," Brown 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, as well as Professor Lowe and all the re-enactors."
Hubert Jewell, 87, of Locust Grove, Va., demonstrated how telegraphing worked in front of the balloon. He worked as a telegrapher for the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad when he was a 17-year-old senior in high school. He worked there for 15 years. Currently, he's part of the Washington-Baltimore Chapter of the Morse Club, and he says he's just trying to keep telegraphing alive.
"We shouldn't let the Civil War die," he said. "It was an infamous chapter in our history."
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