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Slipping The Surly Bonds Of Earth:

William Samuel Henson and the Birth of Aviation


by Chris Oakley


Part 5




Summary: In the first four 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, the introduction of airplanes to modern warfare, and the first attempts to produce a workable aircraft-mounted gun. In this segment we’ll examine how biplanes affected the course of the American Civil War.




The American Civil War would spur advances in aviation like nothing else had before it. Engines and airframes had been constantly evolving all along in the aviation field, but the struggle between the Union and Confederate armies would fast-forward that evolution in a way which few people could have imagined even after the introduction of the Cumberland. Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis had given their respective secretaries of war carte blanche to do whatever was needed to gain the advantage in the air; plane designers on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line were burning the midnight oil as they worked to find ways of making combat aircraft faster and deadlier.

Although in the long run the Union forces’ superior industrial capacity would enable them to prevail in the sky as well as on the ground, the early air battles of the war usually turned out in favor of the Confederates. Case in point: the air elements of the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21st, 1861. The local Union commander knew very little about air combat doctrines and even less about the new Stonewall biplane-- and his lack of knowledge would cost his men very dearly that day.

The 1st Confederate Aerial Legion, having already won laurels from President Davis and the citizens of the CSA for the blow their bombers had dealt the Union at Fort Sumter, would reap further glory at Bull Run thanks in part to the tactical skill and the fighting spirit of its commanding officer, Gen. Thomas Jackson. Jackson, whose troops had nicknamed him "Stonewall" because he spent so much time around those biplanes, sent his bombers out to hit the Union battle lines from all directions; the Union commander, panicked, fled the field in a highly disorganized retreat that Confederate cavalry soon turned into a rout.

But not all the spoils of victory would go to the flyers in gray; indeed, a Union pilot at Bull Run would be credited with scoring the first confirmed air combat kill in American history. A lieutenant in charge of a US 1st Aerial Cavalry scout platoon spotted a Stonewall turning to bomb a Union forward observation post and steered his own plane to give chase to the Confederate aircraft; when he was directly alongside the Stonewall, he turned the controls over to his co-pilot, drew his Colt revolver and shot the men in the Confederate bomber at point-blank range. They were both killed instantly and their plane went into a death spiral that only ended when the Stonewall crashed 60 feet short of its intended target.

Less than four months after Bull Run, an attempt by the Confederate Army to purchase surplus Cumberlands from Great Britain would trigger a diplomatic fracas between London and Washington that almost drew the British army into the American Civil War. On November 7th, 1861 the British steamer RMS Trent was stopped and searched by Union warships manning the blockade line off the Carolinas; in the course of this search, two Confederate diplomats who’d been en route to London to negotiate an agreement with the Royal Army to buy some of its surplus biplanes were arrested.

News of the Trent incident was greeted with outrage back in Great Britain; William Samuel Henson, who’d been designing a prototype for a new mail plane when he learned of the encounter, angrily telegraphed Cornelius Vanderbilt demanding to know what right the Union navy had to stop an unarmed vessel on the high seas and arrest diplomats who were only engaging in the lawful prosecution of their official duties. Vanderbilt replied that the Trent had violated the Union blockade of the South and the warships were well within their rights to arrest the two Confederate envoys.

Only a letter of apology from President Lincoln to the British ambassador in Washington and the release of the two Confederate envoys prevented the Trent crisis from escalating into full-fledged war. But nothing could prevent Vanderbilt and Henson’s business relationship from beginning to deteriorate...


In April of 1862, around the time of the Battle of Shiloh, a Union naval captain named David Farragut conceived of a new type of warship that he believed would make it possible to extend the biplane’s reach on the field of combat. Farragut foresaw a kind of floating airfield, or "biplane carrier" as he described it, launching planes to hit enemy outposts on shore or warships at sea and recovering those planes when their missions were completed. While it would take a half-century for his vision to be realized, he was certainly on the right track in his understanding of how seapower and airpower would be interconnected in future conflicts.

From the very beginning, it was clear such ships would have to be constructed of metal; wooden vessels weren’t structurally suited to accommodate the necessary number of biplanes, and even if they had been they still would have been vulnerable to the danger of fire.1 And in any case, the battle off Hampton Roads between the Union ironclad USS Monitor and her Confederate counterpart CSS Virginia2 had proven that wooden ships were obsolete as far as naval warfare was concerned. Yet while neither the Union nor Confederate navies could hope to put aircraft carriers into service anytime in the near future, technical designers in both navies were hard at work devising and testing ways to adapt military biplanes for maritime service.

Captain Farragut himself headed once such project; based near what is today Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, its goal was to produce an amphibious version of the Valley Forge for the US Navy. After 11 months’ worth of trial and error-- mostly error --the efforts of Capt. Farragut’s team were rewarded in March of 1863 when the world’s first floatplane, the Columbia, took its debut test flight. Outfitted with pontoons on its lower wings, the Columbia was made seaworthy by having its outer skin coated with a special tar. Though too slow and bulky to serve in a combat role, the new seaplane would prove highly valuable as a scout and reconnaissance aircraft; it also served well as a mail carrier and staff liaison plane. During the siege of Vicksburg, one detachment of Columbias even delivered fresh-caught fish to hungry Union troops.


By May of 1863, when the 3rd US Aerial Cavalry was commissioned for active service, the 120 hp engines that had once been considered state-of-the-art among airplane power plants had come to seem as antiquated as the Pyramids of Giza. Union and Confederate factories were regularly producing engine plants in the 225-250 hp range, and one particularly ambitious aeronautical designer had even drawn up rough blueprints for a motor capable of 300 hp.

Airframes were stronger too; after the Union victory at Antietam in the fall of 1862, combat aircraft on both sides in the American Civil War began supplementing their bombloads with Congreve rockets-- something British air commanders in the Crimean War could have only dreamed of doing. At his Indiana laboratory, Richard J. Gatling inched closer every day to perfecting a biplane-mounted version of his lethal anti-aircraft gun. A new and more accurate generation of bombsights was being developed for the Valley Forge, and the first parachutes for combat aviators were in the test stage.

In late June of 1863, a US 3rd Aerial Cavalry scout aircraft spotted large concentrations of Confederate troops south of the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg; the scout plane’s crew duly reported what they’d seen to Union Army ground commanders, and President Lincoln quickly convened an emergency meeting of his senior military advisors to weigh his options for dealing with what he realized was an imminent CSA attack on Gettysburg. Majority sentiment in Lincoln’s cabinet favored an immediate preemptive infantry and cavalry thrust at the Confederate forces, but a group of dissenters argued that it would be better to wait until Valley Forge bombers had softened the enemy up before any moves were made on the ground.

Lincoln ultimately sided with the dissenters, and so the men of the 3rd Aerial Cavalry spent the late evening of June 30th readying their planes for an air strike on the Confederate lines that was set to take place at sunrise on July 1st. Inexplicably, Confederate commanders in Pennsylvania largely neglected to make use of their own air support elements to hit the Union forces or conduct tactical reconnaissance; had it not been for that glaring mistake, the Confederates might have succeeded in handing the Union Army a stunning defeat on the order of order of Yorktown or Hastings...


....but it wasn’t to be. Union combat pilots got in the first shot at the Battle of Gettysburg, and over the next 48 hours the Confederate Army would sustain its highest casualties of the entire war. At mid-afternoon on July 1st, Union ground troops went over to the attack and never let up; by dawn on July 2nd, the Confederates had lost half of their original assault force and Confederate planes were being shot down at a rate of 4 to 1.3 From airstrips safely tucked away behind the Union lines, the US 3rd Aerial Cavalry hammered the Confederate lines without letup.

The 2nd Confederate Aerial Legion struggled desperately to blunt the Union air attacks, and that struggle produced some of the most vicious dogfights seen in any war. Valley Forges and Stonewalls hounded each other like snarling coyotes, their crews trading rifle and pistol fire at every opportunity; scores of Union and Confederate biplanes went home with their wings riddled by bullet holes. Inevitably a few planes were lost in "friendly fire" mishaps, and one Stonewall even wound up getting captured by Union soldiers when its crew landed on the wrong field.

In desperation Brigadier General George Pickett took charge of the surviving Confederate troops and led them in a do-or-die assault on the main Union airstrip; near the airstrip’s edge, however, they came under withering fire from Gatling gun crews who had learned from past experience that their anti-aircraft weapons could serve as effective anti-infantry guns too. Major General Pickett’s men were cut to ribbons; Pickett himself was among the first casualties, killed when a Gatling burst split his skull in half. Seeing no alternative but to retreat, Confederate Army of Northern Virginia C-in-C General Robert E. Lee and his top subordinate, General James Longstreet, ordered those men who could still walk to retire from the battlefield at once and sent stretchers to carry the wounded to field hospitals.

It was the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. From this point forward, the CSA would be on the defensive both on the ground and in the air-- yet as catastrophic as the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg had been, there was still worse to come. One of General Grant’s best known and most aggressive field commanders, William Tecumseh Sherman, was making plans to implement what he called a "scorched earth" policy against the Confederate states using wave after wave of Valley Forge bombers to burn crops, cities, and other important targets to the ground. Warned by a member of his staff that such a strategy might result in high civilian casualties, Sherman contemptuously replied that the Rebs had brought it on themselves the day they bombed Fort Sumter...


To Be Continued




1 In fact, the one attempt ever made to construct a wooden aircraft carrier, Britain’s HMS Boudicca(1902), ended in disaster when an errant match tossed away after lighting a pipe set the main hull ablaze; the Royal Navy terminated the project immediately and court-martialed the project director for negligence.

2 Formerly USS Merrimack; she was salvaged by the Confederate Navy and pressed into their service shortly after the Trent crisis.

3 According to official post-ACW intelligence estimates.


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