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Slipping The Surly Bonds Of Earth:

William Samuel Henson and the Birth of Aviation


by Chris Oakley


Part 6




Summary: In the first five 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 role played by air power in the early years of the American Civil War. In this installment, we’ll see how General Sherman used aircraft to implement his "scorched earth" technique of warfare as the Civil War neared its end and look at the final postwar collapse of the Vanderbilt-Henson partnership.




Though the cannons might have fallen silent at Gettysburg, the biplane’s work in that Pennsylvania town was not yet finished; a special passenger came in by scout plane on November 19th, 1863 to deliver what would turn out to be the important speech of the American Civil War. The passenger was Abraham Lincoln, who’d come to Gettsyburg by way of Baltimore and Philadelphia to dedicate a cemetery for the Union soldiers and airmen who’d sacrificed their lives to turn back the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania. He was the first President of the United States to travel by airplane, and during his journey to the battlefield he’d found time to write his dedication speech on the back of an old envelope.

The Gettysburg Address, influenced by the panorama Lincoln had seen below him, would go on to be remembered as one of the finest examples of oratory America had ever produced. For generations to come it would be quoted by political leaders of all ideological stripes and would be intently studied in history classes throughout the world. As for the biplane that delivered Lincoln to Gettysburg for his historic oration,  it would eventually be preserved at the National Aerospace Museum in Washington.


Another Civil War-era biplane hangs beside it at the museum, but it is remembered for somewhat less noble purposes: it was the aircraft that struck the first blow in General Sherman’s "scorched earth" air campaign of late 1863 and early 1864. It was the first triple-engined  combat aircraft ever produced, and its name aptly reflected its lethal purpose-- Inferno. The Inferno was a new breed of level bomber which Sherman aimed to use to break the CSA’s will to fight by burning out its major cities.

And it was fully suited to its macabre task: the Inferno could carry incendiary bombs or rockets over ranges further than military aircraft had previously flown. Robert E. Lee called it "the most fearsome instrument of war human hands have yet constructed", and there was a great deal of truth to this description. At the time that Lincoln made his historic oration, there were 650 such bombers in the  Union Army’s inventory-- and General Sherman intended to use every last one of them to burn out the enemy, regardless of the cost.

When the Inferno made its operational debut with an early morning air raid on Atlanta on December 2nd, 1863 it set a quarter of the city ablaze; despite poor weather and ferocious Confederate anti-aircraft fire, most of the bombers were able to make it to the safety of their home airfields. Jefferson Davis denounced the Inferno crews as war criminals and issued an executive order for any such crews who fell  in Confederate hands to be shot on sight. Carrying out that order, though, proved easier said than done: these crews routinely carried Colt pistols and knew how to use them, and besides that the Inferno happened to be first combat aircraft to possess its own Gatling guns. Confederate fighter pilots hoping to catch an Inferno crew by surprise with an attack from the rear often got an unpleasant surprise of their own when the swivel-mounted Gatling turret behind the bombardier’s seat tore their Stonewalls to pieces.

Citizens of the southern states soon learned to fear the Inferno like it was one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Just about every major city in the Confederacy not occupied by Union troops felt these bombers’ wrath, and some were subjected to particularly frequent doses of that wrath; next to Atlanta, the Inferno squadrons’ favorite target was the Confederate capital Richmond. Despite having the most formidable air defense network in the CSA, Richmond attracted bomber strikes like a honeycomb draws bears. There’s not one recorded case of an Inferno crew refusing to fly a mission to Richmond; in fact, on at least five separate occasions wounded Union aviators had to be tied to their hospital beds to restrain them from re-injuring themselves when they heard their crewmates were suiting up for another strike at the heart of the Confederacy.

Like termites, the Inferno squadrons ate away at what remained of the CSA’s warfighting capacity; between them, the Union naval blockade of the South, and the Union ground forces’ relentless hammering at the remnants of the Confederate Army, it was clear to all but the wildest Confederate fanatic that final Union victory was close and inevitable. By April of 1864, three years after the first bombs had fallen on Fort Sumter, the 1st Confederate Aerial Legion had ceased to exist and the 2nd and 3rd Legions were operating at less than one-quarter of their original combat strength.

In an effort to salvage his crumbling political base and revive his countrymen’s sinking morale, Jefferson Davis started waging a bombing campaign of his own; however, Confederate bombers lacked the range to do much more than rattle a few windows on Capitol Hill or harass rear echelon Union supply depots. In fact, after the early summer of 1864 even these meager accomplishments would be harder and harder to pull off as Confederate stocks of fuel, munitions, and trained aviators dwindled...


Military science wasn’t the only thing transformed by the Inferno’s introduction; the three-engined bomber would also be a pivotal element in one of the great sociological changes in American history. For most of America’s history, African-Americans had been allowed little chance to serve in the US armed forces; white liberals considered this to be an intolerable situation and had been petitioning President Lincoln for months to change it. In response to their urgings, Lincoln signed an executive order in March of 1864 establishing the first all-black US military unit, the 5th Aerial Cavalry Regiment. The 5th was a bomber squadron whose function would be to support Union land operations in the Carolinas and to hit Confederate industrial facilities there as well.

The men of the 5th Aerial Cavalry were fighting two wars at the same time. While conducting their air strikes against the Confederacy, they were simultaneously struggling to overcome racial stereotypes held by some of their own comrades-in-arms among the Union forces. "Coloreds shouldn’t fly." bluntly declared one white Union Army sergeant, whose outspokenness earned him the contempt of the men of the 5th and a stiff reprimand from his regimental commander.

The black bomber crews’ most ardent champion was their commanding officer, Massachusetts native Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. He took it for granted that black aviators were just as suited for combat duty as their white brethren; a Union horse cavalry lieutenant who made the mistake of denigrating the 5th in Shaw’s presence learned the hard way how firmly Shaw held to this belief when the colonel decked him with a right hook that broke his glasses.

In early September of 1864, as General Sherman’s ground forces were beginning their famous "March To The Sea" and Lincoln was seeking a second term, the 5th Aerial Cavalry was assigned what would prove to be the most critical mission of its existence: to bomb the North Carolina port of Wilmington. With New Orleans and Mobile both occupied by Union troops and Charleston isolated by the Union blockade of the CSA coast, Wilmington had become the South’s second-most vital seaport. If its defenses could be put out of commission for even a short time, it would clear the way for Union ground troops to capture the city and cut off one of the Confederacy’s last economic links to the outside world as well as remove a vital link in the Confederate Army supply chain.

The first wave of bombers took off from an airfield near the Union- occupied city of Raleigh at 5:30 AM on the morning of September 6th, 1864 with a squadron of escort fighters accompanying them; fifteen minutes later the second wave, also accompanied by escort fighters, followed the first wave towards Wilmington. Colonel Shaw, seated on board an observation aircraft, would direct both waves of bombers to their respective targets.

By 6:20 AM the entire regiment was airborne and bearing down on the North Carolina port city; the first warning bells were rung in Wilmington at 7:15 AM, causing civilians to run for shelter and the city’s air defense network to spring into action. Every anti-aircraft gun in town opened fire on the Union bombers and their escorts while Confederate fighters rose to intercept the attack force. For the next two and a half hours, those few brave enough or insane enough to stay out in the open while the bombs were falling would bear witness to the second-biggest air battle of the American Civil War as Valley Forges and Stonewalls tangled with each other in what one local newspaper correspondent called "a Balaclava of the air".

At the height of the bombing, rifle-bearing militiamen joined the anti-aircraft gunners in opposing the Inferno strikes. These riflemen got few hits, but one of those they did get would lead to an event that would be immortalized in American history and literature; a head shot nailed the pilot of Col. Shaw’s observer plane right between the eyes, causing him to slump over his controls and send the plane into an inexorable nose-dive. Determined that the pilot’s death should not be meaningless, Shaw managed to get hold of the steering wheel and with great effort nudged the plane in the direction of the munitions dump at Wilmington’s main Confederate garrison.

Shaw’s aircraft hit the munitions dump just after 9:00 AM, sparking an explosion that sent shrapnel flying in all directions; the heat and flames of the blast exacerbated the fires that the Union bombs and rockets had started. By 9:40, when the surviving planes from the first and second waves were turning for home and the third wave was starting its attack, the entire Confederate Army post was in flames along with most of Wilmington’s Confederate naval base.

The last of the Union bombers finally set course for home at 11:15 AM; they left behind them scores of downed planes from both sides, an army outpost in ruins, a naval garrison that was effectively crippled, and a city whose people were trembling with fear. It took nearly ten days to clean up the wreckage from the munitions dump explosion, and by then Union artillery was within shelling range of Wilmington. After a brief but intense infantry skirmish, the city and its few remaining defenders capitulated to the Union Army on September 18th, 1864.


It wasn’t just the Confederate army and navy bases that were laid waste by the air raid on Wilmington; the bombing also spelled the beginning of the end for Jefferson Davis’ political career. The CSA president, who’d been lauded as a hero when the Confederate rebellion began, was now being increasingly viewed by many of his own people as at best unduly optimistic and at worst a dangerous lunatic. Many of the same crowds who had once lustily cheered his name were now hanging him in effigy and chanting slogans like "Butcher of Wilmington!" or "Davis, resign!" In one of his final public appearances before the CSA collapsed, Davis narrowly escaped assassination at the hands of an embittered ex-Confederate private whose family had been killed in a Union air raid on Savannah.

Within Davis’ own government there was severe dissension as to whether or not the Confederate president should step down. By late September of 1864 the Confederate Congress had debated at least two resolutions calling for Davis’ resignation; Confederate attorney general Thomas Watts had been fired after a vehement argument with Davis over his conduct of the war with the Union; and Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon, convinced that Davis would sooner or later lead the Confederacy to ruin, had tendered his own resignation. Matters came to a head on October 12th, 1864 when Union troops finally captured Norfolk, the prize that had been eluding them since the start of the American Civil War.

At an emergency meeting of President Davis’ cabinet convened shortly after Norfolk fell, recriminations flew thick and fast between Davis, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory, and new Confederate Secretary of War George Davis over where the ultimate responsibility lay for the loss of the vital seaport. Following that meeting, Confederate Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens telegraphed General Robert E. Lee and requested a private meeting at Lee’s field headquarters in Petersburg. When Stephens arrived at Petersburg the next morning, he dropped a bombshell on the commander of the Army of Northern Virgina-- Richmond, the Confederate capital, was on the verge of open revolt if Davis didn’t bow out as Confederate president soon. With a heavy heart, General Lee agreed to accompany Stephens back to Richmond to urge Davis to resign.

Though Davis had been able to resist calls for his departure from others, when he heard Lee urge him to step down he sensed the jig was up; he’d long held General Lee in high regard not just as a military leader but as a person, and if he felt Davis had to go there was no other course of action left to take. On noon on October 15th, 1864 the Confederate Congress accepted Davis’ resignation as president of the CSA; at 12:01 PM Alexander H. Stephens took the oath of office as his successor. Stephens’ first official act was to swear in Thomas Watts as the new Confederate Vice-President; his second was to compose a letter to General Grant asking to open peace negotiations with the Union government.

On January 17th, 1865 Grant flew to Appomattox Court House to accept Robert E. Lee’s surrender as C-in-C of the Army of Northern Virginia. With that act, the American Civil War officially came to an end(though sporadic raids by isolated guerrilla bands would continue until early March); now it was time for general staffs around the world to begin analyzing the role of air power in the Union’s victory and study ways to take the lessons learned about air combat during the war and apply those lessons to future conflicts.


Abraham Lincoln had made history as the first President of the United States to travel in an airplane; tragically, he would also be the first president to die in one. On April 14th, 1865, while he was arriving in Dover, Delaware for a ceremony honoring the men of the US 1st Aerial Cavalry for their distinguished service in combat, he was shot just moments after his plane landed at Dover’s main airfield; in spite of doctors’ best efforts, Lincoln succumbed to his wounds within fifteen minutes after the shooting. The assassin, an unemployed actor named John Wilkes Booth, was arrested by Federal troops that evening and committed suicide while in their custody.

But Lincoln and Booth wouldn’t be the only ones to die as a result of the assassination; the bullets that slew the president also put an end to the Vanderbilt-Henson aviation partnership. Ever since the Trent crisis, relations between the British inventor and the New York millionaire had been steadily deteriorating both on the personal and the business level. The straw that broke the camel’s back would come five days after Lincoln’s assassination, when Henson sent Vanderbilt a telegram chiding him for comments he had made a month earlier to a Harper’s Weekly correspondent expressing approval of General Sherman’s "scorched earth" bombing campaign.

For Vanderbilt, who like millions of other Americans north of the Mason-Dixon Line was still filled with grief and anger over Lincoln’s murder, Henson’s telegram amounted to a slap in the face. Men like Booth, he felt, had made the "scorched earth" policy necessary to hasten the Confederacy’s surrender, and his partner’s words felt all too much like a tacit endorsement of Booth’s criminal act; he decided that he could stand no more of the British inventor.

Two hours after reading Henson’s telegram, Vanderbilt fired off one of his own, coldly informing Henson that the Eastern Aerial Carriages Company was filing papers to terminate its partnership agreements with the Aerial Transit Company effective as of 12 noon London time July 1st, 1865...


To Be Continued



1 From the September 7th, 1864 Wilmington Observer.

2 In the days immediately after the US 5th Aerial Cavalry bombed Wilmington, some of Davis’ harshest critics held him directly responsible for the massive casualties incurred by the Union air raid.

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