The Cursed Silk Dress Balloons 32.078098° -81.082878°

JD Byous– –Books– –Shop

Hey, Everyone!

Today I’m going to tell you about a rather fashionable weapon of war…

I have a story about the Confederate Air Corps… and their airships made from silk dresses… Or so the legend goes.

It is a tragic and twisted story from the beginning all the way to the very sad end. These balloons seemed to be tinged by a curse.     

It was back in 1862 in a pre-dawn light when Savannah gas plant supervisor James Smedberg braced himself against the wall of a brick well to shut off… as he called it… an “intolerable gas flow” and found his hand resting on the still lifeless face of a man suspended on the side of the pit where the valve was located.

Smedberg said the man was hanging by the jaws, between a flange on one side and the brickwork on the other.

Two men were dead, another lay at the bottom of a twenty-four-foot dry well used for running gas and oil pipes for the facility.

Around the spot, other plant workers staggered and fell across the work yard like drunken chickens around a barnyard moonshine tank.

Nearby a short rope held the partially inflated Gazelle, an experimental Confederate observation balloon tied to a winch that was staked to the ground of the gasworks terrace.

The day was supposed to be a festive occasion with bleachers for military and city bigwigs, but then all hell broke loose.

I’m JD Byous. Welcome to History By GPS, where you travel through history and culture GPS location by GPS location.

Remember, the other GPS locations mentioned in this story can be found on HistoryByGPS.COM or on the show notes of your podcast provider… Apple, Google Podcast… and others.

This is part of three interesting historical events that happened years apart at this exact location… which is…

32.078098° -81.082878°.

The other two episodes were the Don’t Tax Me Bro story and the Yankee in the Garden episode. So, check them out if you haven’t. You’ll hear about this guy, Smedberg mentioned in one of them.

Okay, back to the balloon that had a gas problem…

And at my age… boy, I know the feeling.

Now, I will tell you that I had come across this story… about the Confederate balloon… in my studies about the American Civil War. And I will tell you that I am not a scholar of that war by any means. I am a scholar of the places I lived and how things like the Revolutionary and Civil War affected them.

But this incident came to my attention almost by accident. When I was going through old newspaper accounts of things that happened at the area in Savannah called Trustees’ Garden I came across a one or two sentence notice in a Richmond, Virginia newspaper that said that on May 29 1862 two men died in an accident at the Savannah gas works.

So I set it aside and pretty much forgot about it.

Later, I was researching the Savannah gas works and found an article written by James Smedberg about how it was necessary to use pine wood to make gas because of the scarcity of coal during the war. In it he talked about the deaths and that it happened when they were inflating a balloon for the military.

It became evident that the only balloon possible was the first gas balloon built by the Confederate Army to use to spy on Union forces.

Okay, back to business… I imagine that a gas leak was evident when Superintendent Smedberg arrived at the Savannah gasworks just before sunrise at 4 o’clock on that May 29 morning.

He must have smelled smell the fumes before he stepped onto the property.

See, coal and wood gas give off a putrid odor like the oil used in the cracks of sidewalks or creosote piers and telephone poles. It’s unlike today’s odorless natural gas, which needs the added chemical mercaptan to give a scent to escaping fumes.

Gas retort ovens for cooking coal or wood to manufacture gas.

President Abraham Lincoln’s Union blockade created a shortage of coal for the Confederacy. Residential and industrial products like coal supplies could not get into the city… or out of, for that matter.

So the buoyancy for lifting the Confederate Army balloon, Gazelle, required gas that was cooked from Southern yellow pine wood. Some reported that wood gas was thicker and burned better than standard coal, but both forms have a similar smell.

For the gasworks crew, it was time for the morning shift change when Smedberg circled the building to get onto the holding tank terrace where the fumes emanated.

The pungent, nauseating stench would have socked Smedberg in the nose like a punch during a Saturday night boozer.[1] He later wrote that Several plant workers “were badly asphyxiated.”

Two Irish immigrants, Martin Brannan, and William Harper were dead.

One had broken his neck in a fall down the maintenance well and could not be removed because of the heavy flow of gas from the pipe that was supposed to be filling the balloon.

  The stokers of the redoubt ovens, ordinarily tough and hard-as-nails men… were in a panic. Their eyes were blood red and burning from the fumes. Some lay on the coal-tar-stained ground with trance-like gazes staring into the sky; others stumbled dazed in the morning light.

They all feared that the gas would drift into the retort house and ignite at the fired ovens and blow them across the city’s eastern slope.

Another “big-hearted Irishman,” as Smedberg defined him, had been fired… by Smedberg… a couple of days before. Without hesitation, the man reached in, helped close the valve and dislodge the man who was hanging from the pipe and wall.

Making a rope sling, the Irishman slipped it under his arms and climbed down the pipes while his former boss fed the line. Then they hauled the other dead man to the surface.

Then the superintendent’s attention turned to the others. The members of the dazed and intoxicated crew were medicated… The medication… Whiskey, at that time in history, was the standard remedy for just about every ailment…

Ahhh, nineteenth-century medical science.

While the inflation of the balloon resumed, Smedberg’s anger fumed until he became furious. The shift foreman who had worked through the night had disobeyed him.

The gas works terrace where the Gazelle was tested in 1862. Ronnie Overstreet collection.

His orders were that the pressure of the gas was to stay constant and not be changed. But the foreman had made an uneducated adjustment, and the control valve had failed under the pressure.

When the deadly billowing gas started flooded the work yard, the foreman did not have the courage to shut it off, and the emergency erupted.

Smedberg claimed that the incident started in disobedience and ended, as he wrote, in “murder and almost suicide.” That was because there was another shutoff valve within two feet of the muzzle of the pipe.

So, the result… in concise twenty-first-century lingo – the foreman screwed up, and Smedberg fired him.

  Charles Cevor, the balloon’s pilot and builder, was devastated by the news. As in many Victorian narratives, Smedberg concluded his recount with moral and reason.

“The tragedy teaches the common mind that discipline is good but…” [the pilot, Mr. Cevor was], the last [I would have] suspected of superstition, “told me, that it happened at all because it happened on [a] Friday.”

Soon afterward, the heroic, Big-Hearted Irishman… the who climbed into the fume-filled pit… He was rehired by Smedberg’s boss, Francis Willis, the President of the Savannah Gaslight Company.

Smedberg speculated that Willis’ action came out of fear of a lawsuit from the wives of the deceased, who might. To quote him, “enforce exemplary pensions from the company.”  He figured, like today… somebody was going to sue someone over the incident, and good publicity could only help.

One can deduce that the two dead men were among the many Irish who had arrived in Savannah over the past two decades.

At the end of the gassing incident, the area was cleaned and cleared, the bodies were whisked away, and the unknowing public arrived, watched, and was awestruck by the show of the Confederate military aircraft. Enthralled by the spectacle, few knew of the deaths.

  Bleachers on the grounds nearby were full, dignitaries came, and anticipations of all onlookers were high. The balloon was a hit.[2]

The South, and especially Savannah, had built their first Confederate States, gas observation balloon that would help in the fight against the Northern aggressors. To the aeronauts Charles Cevor, and Confederate Captain Edward Lawton, their experience and view would have been remarkable.

Aeronaut, Captain Edward Lawton.

When the wench holding the balloon to the ground was released, the two men rose above the crowd. To the north was Willink’s Wharf on the water’s edge of Trustees’ Garden, where the CSS Georgia stood in the initial construction stages. The Ladies’ Gunboat Association had raised $115 thousand to aid in the war, an equivalent of almost $385 million in the year 2021.[3]

The history-making aircraft rose a few yards away from that spot in a tethered flight, and it floated above Alvin Miller’s iron foundry.

That’s where the iron for the CSS Georgia was forged and cast. With the feed of more line, they were over the rice fields near the city’s eastern boundary.

Willink’s Wharf site 32.079431° -81.082650°

Alvin Miller’s Foundry 32.077637° -81.078925°

  Theirs was a view taken in by few men, and it was usually Cevor tending the gas valve when they did. Toward the ocean, they could see the Savannah River as it twisted leftward, marking the bend at Four Fathom Hole and Fort Jackson and Fort Lee.

Four Fathom Hole 32.083290° -81.039669°

Fort Jackson 32.081901° -81.036431°

Fort Lee Site 32.082792° -81.033878°

Directly to the east, billow-like waves of trees outlined Whitemarsh and Wilmington Islands. The islands were just below Fort Pulaski’s outline, which overlapped the view of Tybee Island and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.

Fort Pulaski 32.027023° -80.890257°

Wilmington Island 32.008238° -80.977426°

Tybee Island 32.007773° -80.843548°

To the south, the rise of Trustees’ Garden Bluff was marked by a line of wood and brick buildings that housed the ironworking Kehoe, Monahan, and Rourke families along Broughton Street. All of which would own iron foundries in the near future. Below, the river shined, glinting flashes of light as the sun slowly rose near the mouth of the Savannah.

Iron working family homes site 32.076543° -81.083088°

Oh, by the way, check out the GPS coordinates on our website at You’ll find the show notes for this episode which include the spot where this event happened.

While you’re there check out or merchandise. We have Tee Shirts, cups, and other Savannah specific products that will make a great gift… to someone else… or to yourself. So check it out.

Now, back to the balloon and the aeronauts that were floating above the crowd.

Down below these guys they would have seen a glimmering ribbon of water igniting a show of line-streaked reflections… flanked by trees along the shore beside marsh grass and Savannah’s bustling wharves all surrounded by flat, fallow fields just outside the city’s eastern boundary.

Flying in a balloon, the sounds are muffled, there while they were in that silent space, they would have heard was occasional boat whistle, the calling of birds, and the droning murmur of the crowd below.

Cevor tested the lines and valves of the balloon while Lawton examined the fort, far in the distance.

The flight was short. With the Yankee troops surveyed and noted, the gas checks were opened after a few jerks on the control ropes, and the mission was over.

Superintendent Smedberg… unimpressed… concluded his balloon account by writing, “the balloon was filled, went up, and presently came comfortably down in the tender mud of a neighboring rice field.” That was it. To him, the test remained merely a test, nothing worthy of note.[4]

Hey… While I’m thinking about it, remember that you can find the GPS location of the spots mentioned in this episode on our website, HistoryByGPS.COM. While you’re there, check out our store, where you can find Savanah products and things that are highlighted in this and other stories we talk about on History By GPS.

Okay… Back to our cursed balloon…

  Earlier, the Confederacy tried to make hydrogen gas, which is a more efficient form of buoyancy, but blockade-induced shortages of materials dictated otherwise.

The chemicals for portable, wagon-hauled generation of hydrogen, as used by the Union balloonist, could not be imported, and the finances of the South prevented research investment.

So, the Gazelle’s virgin ascent was forced to utilize “streetlight” gas. The only location and source of the lighter-than-air property available in the southeast was at the Savannah Gaslight Company works next to the river in Trustees’ Garden.

Smedberg mentioned the flight and the deaths of Brannan and Harper in a recollection twenty or more years later. The Northerner gas-plant superintendent is described in a recollection by Union POW Frederick Schmitt as “…a born Scandinavian who was at heart… a Union man.”

Circa 1900 diagram of the process of manufacturing gas.

He had a kind personality but was direct in the description and operation of the plant.[5]  

Again… you’ll learn about Schmitt, the POW, in another episode on this GPS location.

The lighter-than-air, silk-enclosed bubble of streetlight gas would come to be referred to as the “Silk Dress Balloon.”

That was because the Yankee blockade, Lincoln’s Anaconda Plan… had created a shortage of fabric, so bundles of dress silk in various patterns was collected to fabricate the aircraft with whatever style or color it may be… stripes, plaids, florals, and all.

Then during the first flight of the balloon, Confederate General James Longstreet made a tongue-in-cheek comment to the press that created the nickname. He joked that the Confederacy had collected silk dresses from across the South for its fabrication. Many in the press took him seriously, and they printed it, and the name stuck.

The balloon’s pilot, professor Charles Cevor was an interesting guy. He was a tall and muscular risk-taker and had labored for weeks to sew and fabricate the gondola of the craft.

Edward Cheves, a teen-aged-civilian and Savannah boy helped him construct the craft under the direction of Edward’s uncle, South Carolina native Captain Langdon A. Cheves.[6]  

The Cheves family was from a powerful South Carolina family. Many of the men were serving in the Confederate Army.

Now, I’ll warn you… The ruling class of the South… and the North… was a mass of interconnected families who held the power positions. For better or worse, the American Civil War was a family squabble.

And from here on in this story, you’ll almost need a roster of the players.

That captain who was in charge of the balloon’s construction was the son of a lawyer named Langdon Cheves, who had died a few years earlier in 1857 after a successful pollical career.[7]

He had been the Attorney General of South Carolina, a US Congressman, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, and the President of the Bank of the United States under US President James Madison.

See, a legacy of strength and leadership in the family was paramount in the southern states. Service was a family calling.

Young Edward Cheves would soon hold the Aide-de-camp Cadet’s title and serve as an aid to Savannah General Alexander R. Lawton.[8] Not “officially” military, Edward was the son of Langdon Cheve’s brother, Dr. John Richardson Cheves also of Savannah, who was spending the war in Charleston perfecting incendiary bombs to hurl on Union forces.

General Alexander R. Lawton

So the balloon project was most likely a concoction of the fire-bombing doctor, who then relayed the order to his brother and then to the 18-year-old. The craft was built in Savannah following the specifications dictated by Charles Cevor, the civilian aeronaut, who was ironically… a Pennsylvania boy.

Cevor was well known in Savannah and the Southeast. His flights had been popular attractions for spectators in the area for many years. He was also known to have crashed several balloons during the hazardous learning curve in the evolution of the infant transportation movement.

One instance was when he started a flight in his balloon, Forest City, outside of the Chatham Artillery Armory on Wright Square two years before the Gazelle flight. The Chatham Artillery building sat on the northeastern trust lot in Wright Square that is now part of the Tomochichi Federal Building.

The Chatham Artillery Armory on Wright Square.

Chatham Artillery Armory Site 32.078241° -81.092825°

As a tidbit of trivia… a few months earlier, the ballroom at that location where part of Silk Dress Balloon was constructed… was used by showman PT Barnum to house his menagerie in Savannah. Barnam, a New Yorker, pulled out when the war started.

After Cevor’s liftoff in the Forest City balloon, he quickly realized that the day was not ideal for a flight. A newspaper recorded, “Taking advantage of the slight lull in the wind, he ascended very rapidly… at three minutes after five o’clock, [he was] bearing away to the northeast, and gradually ascending, in the hope of meeting a current that would carry him more westward.”

Well, Cevor ascended several hundred feet and determined that his course, and all other air currents, would take him over the Atlantic. So, when he released gas to descend…

That is… gas from the balloon… We just want to be accurate here.

So, when he released the gas… At a lower altitude, he crossed another current that pulled him sharply toward the ocean.

He told his untested copilot, a guy named Dalton, that they were going into the water. Then Dalton’s response was, “For God’s sake land in the woods if you can.”

Well, Cevor was mildly amused since it was the first show of emotion by the trainee. Otherwise, Cevor said that Dalton had, quote, “preserved a coolness and exhibited a nerve that but few men can boast of possession.”

See… The pilot knew that such a tree landing would likely kill them. A water landing was the only choice. Fifteen air miles away, they came down in Hilton Head, South Carolina’s Calibogue Sound.

Calibogue Sound 32.109002° -80.836211°

The wind dragged them for about an hour, where Cevor, chest deep in water, fought to control the balloon-turned sail. Finally, the breeze pulled the men close to the shoreline at Hilton Head.

A planter named George Savage watched from shore. A newspaper reported, While the men were in the water, one of the valve-ropes became tangled, and the other one broken. This ment that Cevor had no means for controlling the balloon. With combined efforts of Mr. Savage, his slaves, and the aeronauts there was no way to hold “to hold the monster” of a balloon.

Professor Charles Cevor and his passenger jump from the Forest City balloon into the water near Hilton Head, South Carolina.

The craft was lost, breaking away from its crewmen, it “darted aloft, like a projectile, and in one moment more was hurtling away, and was carried off, over the sea.” Savage ushered the soaked and freezing, Cevor and his companion to his home to recuperate.[9]

  Now, a little about Cevor. When the war started, the Pennsylvania-born man offered his services to the Confederate Army who promptly rejected the proposal — newfangled gadgets were not welcome.

In 1862, after seeing the Union Army balloons flown by Thaddeus Lowe across the lines of battle, Brigadier General Thomas Drayton, Commander the 4th Military District of South Carolina, called for Cevor’s balloon skills to be utilized for the cause.

Well, we know that for the Southern Cause, Cevor’s balloon, Forest City, was no longer available… a casualty of experimentation lost in the aforementioned waters of Hilton Head. And by that time, it was probably somewhere over Siberia, half a world away. So Drayton ordered a new aircraft constructed.

Cevor and the young Cheves designed the aircraft while, over in South Carolina, Captain Langdon Cheves worked on the battlefield logistics.

In the Armory building on Wright Square and in the St. Andrew’s Building on Broughton and Jefferson Street, the duo stretched the bolts of random patterns and colors that made up the canopy.

St. Andrew’s Building 32.079739° -81.095557°

Seamstresses were hired to sew the material into the balloon envelope body working in two locations.[10] When complete, the fabric was coated with a varnish made from melted gutta-percha material from the rubber shock absorbers used on railroad cars. Today gutta-percha is used to fill teeth after root canals… so I’m told.[11]

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  Another Confederate balloon flew before the “Silk Dress” craft. A hot-air balloon was used during earlier observations. But with little success, it was dropped from service.

In Savannah, with the successful test of the Gazelle, Cevor received the brevet rank of Captain in the Confederate Army. He immediately collected the balloon and boarded the next train to Virginia. Among the wooded, rolling hills of Henrico County, during the Seven Days Battle at Richmond July 1, 1862, the Confederate balloon floated above the James River, riding on streetlight gas from Richmond’s Fulton Gasworks.

Tethered to a railroad car it rolled to the battle lines then back to the gasworks to replenish “fuel.” As the newly appointed commander the Army of Northern Virginia General Lee chose Major Edward Porter Alexander to oversee the flight and observe enemy positions.[12]

Alexander would later move to Savannah and become the president of the Central of Georgia Railway. He recalled the incident and the balloon ascent in his memoir, “I saw the battle of Gaines Mill from it and signaled information of the movement of [Henry W.] Slocum’s division across the Chickahominy to reinforce [General Fitz John] Porter.

General Edward Porter Alexander, CSA

Balloon flights went up daily, and when the enemy came too close, the inflated balloon would be carried down the river and flights made from the deck of a boat.”

Though other airmen shared ascents with Alexander, only he and Cevor were chosen for induction into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006.[13]  

  Another crewman that should have been considered would relive the events almost fifty years after the forming and disbanding of the Confederate Air Force. That man was Adolphus Morse, another Pennsylvanian who had joined the Chatham Artillery.

He wrote of his experience as a lieutenant under Captain Charles Cevor, saying that Cevor was ordered to prepare the aircraft for Government use, “with sufficient lifting power to carry three men, besides ballast.”[14]

Morse remembered seeing Cevor in Savannah at the Artillery hall before he was assigned to help with the Gazelle. He said, “I remember to have seen him… but little did I think of going with [the balloon] to the field,” he wrote. It was months later when he was ordered to Charleston to assist in the Secessionville fight.

At nineteen-years-old, Morse was considered a reliable artilleryman and a good judge of distance. With that qualifications, he found himself assigned to assist Cevor in South Carolina.

“We had with us six young men as helpers.” The group included Savannahian, Pvt. Clement Saussey also of the Chatham Artillery. “We remained in Charleston for two or three weeks and was then ordered to Richmond and in a short time was ordered to the front. We secured board near the Gasworks and then our fun and frolic was over, for we began work in earnest.”

Major Alexander received orders from General Lee to command the balloon unit good reason. Alexander had graduated from West Point in 1857, was an artilleryman, and could judge distances.

But, also, he had served in the American West, where he worked in a unit under Major Albert J. Myer to create a “Morse code” system using flags. During that experiment, the Wig-Wag system was created. The code is used in military communication today.

Under Alexander’s direction, during the Seven Days Battle, the crew inflated the balloon in the dark of night, then tethered it to a railroad car and chugged to the front before dawn.

There in Richmond balloon was positioned on a hill, where they had a good view of Union General McClellan’s army.  Across the battlefield, about five miles away, the Yankees was flying, spying on the Confederate troops.

McClellan’s army had resisted all of Lee’s efforts up to that time, but on Friday, the balloonist could see from the movements of their enemies and knew that something was about about happen.

The Union balloonist signaled to someone to his right. So, Alexander sent the information to the ground below.

General Stonewall Jackson and his men made a forced march, and immediately attacked McClellan’s right, and in a short time. The Union General’s line was broken and began falling back.

That was the beginning of the terrible destruction of life that stopped the Union Army and ended the Sevan Days’ Fight in Front of Richmond.”

The Union Army retreated, continuing the fight over the hills and streams of twenty miles of countryside. McClellan lost the battle and would eventually be relieved of his command by President Lincoln.

Another side note… McClellan retaliated against Lincoln and ran against him in the 1864 election. McClellan Lost.

  Later the balloon crew moved down the James River to find the Union General’s army. One advantage the Confederate crew had lies in the positioning of the river, the railroad, and the gasworks.

The tracks run along the James River between the gasworks and the water, giving the crew options of two transport methods.

A Union Tug Boat pushes a barge with an observation balloon on the James River, Virginia.

At the plant a tugboat assumed the role of platform and carrier of the aircraft. Morse explains, “We took the balloon on board the tugboat ‘Teaser’ and started down the river, and when about twenty miles down made an ascension and found his army down between the Chickahominy and James Rivers.

But, owing to the obstinacy of the boats captain, he ran aground…” The Teaser, lying helplessly on a sand bar, took enemy fire. Shot and shell smashed the cabin. A death blow landed when a cannon ball pierce the boiler. A loud explosion ripped the deck off from the tug’s port side.

Then a Union gunboat crew boarded and captured the defenseless boat. “Ourselves and the crew escaped and returned to Richmond, where we were ordered to return to Savannah and build a new [balloon]. It was to be called, The Nimbus. It was thirty-six feet in diameter, raised forty-six feet above the valve board and fifty six feet overall and made of 980 yards of dress silk.

An 1862 Tug Teaser Port deck damage after boiler explosion after the boat’s capture by Union forces on the James River in Virginia. James Gibson photo Library of Congress.

The total weight was 888 pounds.[15] We bought every yard of silk we could find in Richmond, Savannah, and Charleston, which was over 1,000 yards. We remained with the second balloon in Charleston and made observations from decks of vessels to ascertain their positions on Morris Island and the location and number of their gunboats.”

After the battle, the balloon corps disbanded. Morse was reassigned, and reduced to the rank of private.

He said, “We were in the service eighteen months when I was ordered back to my company, which was at that time on James Island. After this I found it pretty rough to the end of the war, which for us occurred in North Carolina.”[16]

What had happened was the fateful end of the balloon corps. Secured at Fort Johnson at the mouth of Charleston Bay, foul weather tore the balloon loose. It drifted into the stratosphere and was gone.

Morse had been the last reconnaissance pilot to ascend in a Confederated balloon. It was during the first battle for Ft. Wagner.[17]

  The curse of the Silk Dress Balloons started with the deaths of gasworks workers Brannan and Harper. It continued through other participants. Captain Edward Payson Lawton, brother and aide to General Lawton, did not survive the war.

He flew in the Savannah gasworks test in May and then died in December at the Battle of Fredericksburg.

His death was seven months before the second, Savannah-built balloon, the Nimbus, flew over Fort Wagner outside of Charleston. Again, That’s where Morse was at the control.

The misfortune of the balloons would conclude with other deaths.

On July 10, 1863, there at Fort Wagner near Charleston, Captain Langdon A. Cheves, Sr, was described as being distraught… Remember, he was the military supervisor who oversaw both balloon construction operations.

Fort Wagner, SC 32.723433° -79.879338°

The war had weighed heavily on him and his cousins in the Cheves family. One-year prior, Langdon’s young nephew, Cadet Edward Cheves, who had helped Cevor during the construction of the first balloon…

Well, he was killed in the Battle of Gaines Mill, during the first days of the Gazelle’s use in battle. Early in the fight while riding by the side of General Lawton, his horse was shot from under him.

Lawton described the incident saying, “He promptly rose to his feet, announced to me his safety and his intention to keep up with the brigade on foot. He followed on toward the left, where the Thirty-first and Thirty-eighth were so hotly pressed, and while gallantly pursuing the line of his duty, he fell pierced through the heart by a rifle-ball.”[18]

Gaines Mill Battlefield 37.573549° -77.293109°

Mary Chestnut of South Carolina noted in her diary on July 1, 1882… If you’ve watched the Ken Burns series on the Civil War she was mentioned often.

She wrote,  “No more news. It has settled down into this. The general battle, the decisive battle, has to be fought yet. Edward Cheves, [the] only son of John Cheves, [was] killed.

According to Chestnut’s journal, John’s daughter… Edward’s sister… kept crying, ‘Oh, mother, what shall we do; Edward is killed,’ but the mother sat dead still, white as a sheet, never uttering a word or shedding a tear.”

Then Chestnut, who had seen so much of the effects of the war, questioned, “Are our women losing the capacity to weep? The father came to-day, Mr. John Cheves. He has been making infernal machines in Charleston to blow up Yankee ships.”[19]

The Second Battle of Fort Wagner.

  At Fort Wagner, Langdon Cheves received the news that his sister’s son, Captain William Thomson Haskell, had died on July 2 at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. William was revered by his family and by his troops.

On the 10th, Langdon received news in the early morning that his other nephew, William’s brother, Captain Charles T. Haskell, Jr. had also been killed while helping to repel a Union amphibious attack.

Flanked by northern soldiers and his position was overrun, and he died a short distance from Langdon’s bunker.

The next day Langdon, was sitting in his quarters overwhelmed with grief at the news of his family tragedies, when he heard the battle restarting. He jumped up and ran to the ramparts of the battery…

Shrapnel from the very first shell fired from a Union gunboat exploded near him… killing him instantly.[20]

In the same time frame another family member, captain Joseph Cheves Haskell, who was the brother of Charles and Thomas… was wounded. He lost his arm and shoulder at Gaines’ Mill after ascending in the balloon.[21]

Now, that fighting where Captain Langdon Cheves died… It sits high at the top of historical battles.

There on July 18, another Union advance attempted to overrun Battery Wagner. In the attacking force was the famous Union 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, made up of black soldiers led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.

If you saw the movie Glory, THAT 54th Massachusetts… As you’ll remember, it failed to take the fortification that Langdon Cheves engineered and helped construct a few months earlier.[22]

That movie Glory, you’ll remember, starred Morgan Freeman and a young Denzel Washington.

The Cheves and Haskell families paid dearly during the short life of the Confederate Balloon Corps. After that time both the Union and Confederate balloon usage quickly disappeared, but their mark in history remains.

  The Confederate Air Force was born in 1862 and died the next year. But it holds a first in the records. Barges were the watercraft that held balloons used by the Union Army. They were pushed or pulled by steamboats.

The Confederate balloon, Gazelle’s carrier, was a tug boat named, Teaser, It had a short-lived career but gained the distinction of being the first motorized aircraft carrier in North America.

After the Teaser’s capture, the deflated Gazelle was taken to the Union Army’s chief aeronaut, Thaddeus Lowe, who chopped the canopy into small pieces and distributed it to friends as souvenirs.

Fragments of the silk envelope of the CSS Gazelle airship.

A few of the fragments eventually made it to the Smithsonian Museum. Today they are in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.[23]

Years later, Edward Porter Alexander, who ended his career with the ranke of General… He would puzzle over the events following the Battle at Charleston and the events of the Balloon Corps’. The Confederacy did not have the resources to continue, but the Union, too, dropped their use altogether.

Alexander wrote, “Even if the observers never saw anything, they would have been worth all the cost for the annoyances and delays they caused us in trying to keep our movements out of their sight.”[24]

  The concept of flying craft and boats found service before the American Civil War, so the Gazelle and other balloons were not first in battle. In 1806 the first ship to serve as a carrier for airborne warcraft was the British Royal Navy’s HMS Pallas.

The ship’screw flew kites over the French coast to drop propaganda leaflets on Napoleon’s army. Forty years later, in 1849, the Vulcano, an Austrian steam vessel, tethered a manned hot air balloon to its deck to bomb Venice. Unfortunately for the Austrians, but most fortunate for the Venetians, the attempt failed due to ill-directed winds.[25]

However, the Savannah-Trustees-Garden-tested Gazelle… which was first tethered to a railroad car, then tied to the steam-tug, CSS Teaser, was the first in America to fly from a motorized aircraft carrier. A different form than the aircraft that we think of today — but still an aircraft, and still… the first.

It is also the first to float on a bubble of wood gas, made by the retort house crew at Trustees’ Garden… You remember the stokers from the Yankee in the Garden… Episode nine? Those same stokers.

The Gazelle and the Nimbus… The Silk Dress Balloons… left a tragedy-strewn legacy that touched many families… from those of the Irish gas workers Martin Brannan, and William Harper to those in the Lawton and Cheves family of Georgia and South Carolina. But the aircraft in the Confederate air force goes down as a part of history few people remember… other than a few aircraft and history nerds like me.

So… if you didn’t already know this story…  Now you know.

Be sure to go to and check out or notes and merchandise… I will find it delightful and be eternally grateful if you do…

See you later.



GPS locations

Location of three episode stories, 32.078098° -81.082878°

Ya know… I guess we all know about spy balloons today after we find that the Chinese have been flying over us for several years.

[1] Daniel Tenkrat, Tomas Hlincik, Ondrej Prokes, Natural Gas Odorization, Ondrej Prokes Institute of Chemical Technology Prague Czech Republic, 2010; James R. Smedberg, Observations during Many Years’ Experience in the Gas Business, Report of Proceedings, American Gas Light Association, p 325, 1887.

[2] The Daily Dispatch, Richmond, “Martin Brannan and Wm. Harper two employees in the Savannah Gas Works, were killed by an accident on Friday morning”, June 5, 1862, Smedberg, p539; Smedberg’s note that the “big-hearted Irishman” was re-hired, helps with the assumption that the two were of Irish and not of African descent since men of both groups worked at the facility. First, the re-hire negated a lawsuit. Secondly, at that time in Savannah slaves could not sue whites in court, neither could free blacks nor nominal slaves. They would have required a sponsor to represent them who also suffered damages. Thirdly, it was unlikely that blacks would not have received a pension which was a “perk” that was generally reserved only for whites. Though the Irish were considered by other ethnic and social groups to be on a lower level, they did have white skin, thus the rights as such under the laws.

[3] Richard J Anuskiewicz and Ervan G. Garrison. (1992). “Underwater archaeology by braille: Survey methodology and site characterization modeling in a blackwater environment – A study of a scuttled confederate ironclad, CSS Georgia, PDF, p 4, 1992.

[4] James R. Smedberg, Observations During Many Years’ Experience in the Gas Business, Heat Light and Power, Proceedings of the American Gas Light Association, April 1889, p325.

[5] Frederick Emil Schmitt, Prisoner of War: Experiences in Southern Prisons, Wisconsin Magazine of History, Winter, 1958-1959.

[6] Find a Grave, Langdon Cheves; Langdon Cheves, Jr. was the son of Langdon Cheves, Sr, brother of John Cheves who was the father of Dr. Edward Cheves,

[7] Langdon Cheves (the elder,) 1814 – 1852, was considered as a replacement for aging US Vice President and Senator John C. Calhoun. Cheves opposed the state’s secession singularly in 1850 but suggested a cooperative move with other slave-holding states.

[8] Some records list Edward Cheves, a “captain,” however a notation in files later indicate that the rank was incorrect after consulting General Lawton’s records. The rank of Cadet was used for young, educated teenagers who volunteered during the Civil War and earlier. SEE: National Archives, Edward Cheves, NARA M331, 586957, Roll: 0053, Record Group 109, Compiled service records of Confederate officers

[9] Another Escape of a Balloon, Savannah Evening Express clipping, 1860, Georgia Historical Society Library.

[10] The building as of this writing was the office location of Lominac Koleman Smith Architects, a principal contributor in the Kehoe Iron Works complex renovation from 2013 to 2018: Different records report differing locations in the fabrication of the craft. One or both locations may have been used to make the two balloons.

[11] E.P. Alexander, Military Memoirs of a Confederate, A Critical Narrative, 1907, pp 172: Gutta percha is a latex material processed from the sap of the getah perca plant in Indonesia.

[12] E.P. Alexander, Military Memoirs, p 172: Major, later General, Edward Porter Alexander was brother in law to CSA General Alexander R. Lawton and to CSA General Jeremy Francis Gilmer. After the war Alexander became President of the Central of Georgia Railroad, Lawton became an ambassador to Austria-Hungry and Gilmer became president of the Savannah Gas Light Company and the Central of Georgia prior to Alexander: When Porter was 14 years old and his two oldest sisters married West Point graduates, Gilmer and Lawton; Mark C. Hagerman, Edward Porter Alexander, (1835-1910),

[13] Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame, Captain Charles Cevor,

[14] Cevor and Morse were native Pennsylvanians. After the war, they both moved to Texas where they settled in different areas and lived out their lives.

[15] New Army Balloon, Memphis Daily Appeal, Memphis, Tennessee,August 22, 1862. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress..

[16] Reminiscences of the Boys in Gray, 1861- 1865, compiled by Mamie Yeary, McGregor, Texas, 1912, University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History pp 546: Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, TX May 30, 2010: Morse had been wounded in the battle of Olustee, FL. “… a slight wound…This was one of the hardest fights of the war and only lasted form 1 p.m. until dark, February 12, 1864. On our loss was 95 killed and 800 wounded, while the enemy had 203 killed and 1,152 wounded.”

[17] Rebel aeronauts, including a Central Texan, took their fight to the skies, by Terri Jo Ryan, Waco Tribune Herald, January 1, 2012.

[18] Reports of Brig. General Alexander R. Lawton, C.S. Army, commanding forth Brigade, Second division (Jackson’s), of the battles of Gaines’ Mill and Malvern Hill, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1861-1865, Report No. 246, Serial No 013, Vol II pg 2.

[19] Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut, A Diary From Dixie. Electronic Edition.1997, pp 199: “Mr.” John Cheves of her writing refers to Dr. John Cheves.

[20] Charleston Mercury, July 13, 1863.

[21] Gary W. Gallagher, Fighting for the Confederacy, The Personal Recollections of General E.P. Alexander, 1989; John Haskell survived and was mentioned by Mary Chestnut’s June 12 entry in her diary, “Two weddings – in Camden, Ellen Douglas Ancrum to Mr. Lee, engineer, and architect, a clever man, which is the best investment now. In Columbia, Sally Hampton and John Cheves Haskell, the bridegroom, a brave, one-armed soldier.”

[22] Dean Stevens, South Carolina Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, January 10, 2014. In 1876, Langdon Cheve’s son, Dr. Langdon A. Cheves, Jr., helped battle Yellow Fever in Savannah. Three years later, fifteen years after his father’s death, he died fighting the disease in Memphis, Tennessee.

[23] National Air and Space Museum collection, fabric samples, Washington, DC.

[24] Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Vol. CI, June 1900 to November 1900. New York and London: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1900.

[25] Justin D. Murphy, Military Aircraft, Origins to 1918, p 10, ABC-CLIO, 2005.

© JD Byous, All rights reserved, 2023

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