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Slipping The Surly Bonds Of Earth:

William Samuel Henson and the Birth of Aviation


by Chris Oakley


Part 4




Summary: In the first three chapters of this series we chronicled British inventor William Samuel Henson’s development of the world’s first practical airplane, the establishment of his partnership with Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the introduction of airplanes to modern warfare. In this segment we’ll examine how air power’s role in combat continued to expand during the Crimean War and look at the story of how an Indiana inventor added a lethal new dimension to aerial combat.




"Half a league, half a league, half a league onward, into the valley of fire rode the six hundred!" It is one of the most famous poetic lines in the history of the English language-- and also the first known air combat reference in a literary work. That stanza, from Tennyson’s "The Charge of the Light Brigade", sums up rather succinctly the fiery cauldron that the Balaclava battlefield became when Cumberland bombers sought to intervene in Lord Cardigan’s bitter struggle with a numerically superior Russian cavalry force.

Unfortunately, this time Her Majesty’s 1st Aerial Cavalry wasn’t as successful as they had been in their previous assault on the Czar’s troops. Because of a navigational error by the pilot of the lead plane in the attack force, the bombers hadn’t arrived at the correct target area until the battle was half over, and when they finally did reach the right battlefield smoke from cannon volleys by both British and Russian artillery conspired to wreak havoc on the accuracy of their bombing runs.

Without the presence of the bombers, it’s conceivable that Lord Cardigan might have died on the Balaclava battlefield. As it was, he barely managed to escape the Russians’ trap with a quarter of the men he’d had under his command when the battle started; upon his return to England, Cardigan petitioned the Queen and the Imperial General Staff for more biplanes, saying-- with some justification --that with greater numbers of Cumberlands he might yet have been able to achieve a more decisive victory.


The Russians, meanwhile, were having their own frustrations to deal with when it came to air power. After months of work, they still hadn’t devised an effective countermeasure against the Cumberland; the czar was becoming impatient, and a bit worried too. In his mind he was already picturing British troops descending on Moscow like swarms of locusts. News of his army’s troubles at Balaclava did much to heighten these fears-- what good was having a large army, he raged at his war minister, if it couldn’t protect itself against ruin from the skies?

Oddly enough, the solution to the problems of both creating an effective anti-aircraft defense and making the airplane a more potent instrument of attack would come from the same person: Indiana inventor Richard J. Gatling. Since the formation of the US Army’s 1st Aerial Cavalry, Gatling had been working day and night on creating a new kind of gun made specifically to be mounted on planes like the Cumberland; he envisioned a multiple-shot weapon, or "repeating cannon" as he called it, strapped to a plane’s wings to be fired by the pilot at close range when circumstances permitted. After further refinement, he came up with the idea for a ground-based version of this cannon to be deployed in carriages on the battlefield and used to defend troops and supplies against enemy biplanes. Though his weapon wouldn’t get past the blueprint stage until after the Crimean War was over, it would play a critical part in another world-shaking conflict that was only a handful of years down the road.

In January of 1856 Gatling showed the finished blueprints of his proposed cannon to officials at the US War Department. Eight months later the prototype of his new weapon-- nicknamed "the Gatling gun" by Jefferson Davis’ staff --was test-fired for the first time. Although the initial version of the Gatling gun was too bulky to be fitted on conventional combat planes of the time, it held considerable promise as a battlefield anti-aircraft weapon, and Davis saw fit to award a federal contract to Gatling to continue working on refining his gun.


The relationship of war and technology is like that of an ocean wave washing up on a beach: each affects and changes the other’s shape. Just like today’s computerized unmanned drones are reshaping the art of war for the 21st century, Cumberland-type biplanes would play a part in redefining strategic and tactical military doctrines over the second half of the 19th. No longer would mere superior numbers of troops be enough to guarantee victory on the battlefield; it would be necessary to have the advantage in air power as well.

By the time Russia sued for peace in late February of 1856, the United States, Britain, France, Spain, and Austria-Hungary had all organized aerial cavalry regiments and Belgium was in the process of forming one. Prussia, the nucleus of the modern German state, had not yet explicitly decided to establish such units in its own army but was known to be keenly interested in them.

Gatling, meanwhile, continued to refine his lethal invention, working to make the bulky cannon smaller and lighter so that someday military aircraft could carry guns as well as bombs into battle. In the meantime, Army recruits were learning new styles of marksmanship that involved firing rifles or pistols from an open cockpit. Not all of those recruits, however, would be using their training in the service of the Federal government; Jefferson Davis, who in December of 1860 had become the first president of the Confederacy, would succeed in tempting many of them to abandon the US Army in order to join a new unit grandiloquently called the 1st Confederate Aerial Legion.

In February of 1861 several Eastern Aerial Carriages Company factories in the states of the newly minted CSA severed ties with the parent firm in New York and banded together to form the Confederate Aircraft Company. The new company was quickly entrusted with the job of delivering bombers and reconnaissance planes to the Confederate army-- a simpler task than it might appear at first glance, given that the owners of the factories in question had already withheld their Valley Forge planes from the Federal government and renamed them as "Stonewalls".1

Two months later, a half-dozen of these Stonewalls would bomb the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina in the first air strike in American military history. The 1st Confederate Aerial Legion had fired the opening shots of the American Civil War...


To Be Continued




1 A reference to Jefferson Davis’ famous boast that the 1st Confederate Aerial Legion would be "a stone wall against Northern aggression".


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