Balloon used for scout duty. From the times-dispatch, September 20th, 1905.Terrible experiences of a Confederate officer who saw the enemy from Dizzy Heights.
Rope cut as he ascended.An ascent that completely Unnerved the Aeronaut, but he finally came down safely.
During the war between the North and the South many events of absorbing interest occurred, and it has been the object of the Times-Dispatch to record as many as possible of these in the Confederate column of this paper. The following account of Capt. John Randolph Bryan's trips in a war balloon, while attached to General J. B. Magruder's headquarter's before Yorktown, we consider as well deserving publication, as it was (so far as known to us) the first time a balloon was used by the Confederates in order to ascertain the position and strength of the Union forces. It will add to the interest of this narrative to know that at the time Capt. Bryan was making his ascensions from the Confederate lines General Fitz John Porter was performing the same service for the Union army which lay facing the Confederates. His experience was similar to that of Captain Bryan's, in that his balloon rope broke and his balloon also drifted aimlessly in the air. General Porter's balloon was a much more expensive affair than the one the Confederates could afford, and was attached to the ground by a silken rope. Although General Porter escaped without injury in this adventure, the exploit is now recorded in bronze upon a monument to him. Capt. Randolph Bryan at present resides in Birmingham, Ala. He is the eldest brother of Mr. Joseph Bryan of this city, of Mr. St. George T. C. Bryan, and of the Rev. Braxton Bryan, of Petersburg.
Captain Bryan's story.The story is given as told by Captain Bryan. He says:
I was a young man at the time the events here mentioned transpired, and was serving as clerk in the Adjutant-General's office and acting as aide-de-camp to Major-General J. B. Magruder, then commanding the Army of the Peninsula, near Yorktown, Va. In the spring of 1862, when General McClellan, of the Union Army, decided to make his advance on Richmond by the Peninsula route, with his two flanks guarded by gun-boats, he found Gen. Magruder entrenched across the Peninsula at Yorktown, from the York to the James river. Hardly had McClellen made his appearance when General Johnston, with the Army of Northern Virginia, came to the relief of Magruder, who with but a few thousand men was holding the Union army in check. The line across the Peninsula was an irregular one, being made to follow the contour of some streams and mill dams which greatly strengthened their positions. Magruder's headquarters were at Yorktown, while Joseph E. Johnston took up his headquarters at Major Lee's house, nearer the James River, some miles farther along the line from York river. General Johnston had brought down with him from Richmond what I believe to be the first balloon used for millitary service during the war. It was nothing but a big cotton bag, coated over so as to make it air-tight, and intended to be inflated with hot air, as gas was a thing not to be had in those days and in those places. After being on the Peninsula for some days, General Johnston wrote to General Magruder, requesting him to detail some one who was thoroughly acquainted with the country, and who was capable of forming a correct opinion as to the number and character of the troops in front of him, in order that he might be assigned to do duty with General Johnston. This order, coming from General Johnston's headquarters, passed through my hands, as I was chief clerk in Magruder's Adjutant-General's office, and being young, and, I fear, of a dare-devil spirit, and supposing that an assignment to this duty would bring me prominently into notice, and probably offer some opportunity for distinguishing myself (for since childhood I had been thoroughly familiar with all that section of country, and felt myself competent as to the other requirements). I therefore at once asked that I might be detailed for this service.
Asked for the detail.
Major Henry Bryan, Magruder's Adjutant-General, strongly dissuaded me from the undertaking, but I was so bent on it that I went in person to General Magruder and asked for the detail, which, after some little persuasion on my part, was granted to me, although my friends told me that it was more than likely that I would get myself into hot water, and very possibly (in case I should go into the enemy's lines) that I would get shot for my pains. Nevertheless, I joyfully received my orders, and mounting my horse, rode gaily over to Lee's farm, where General Johnston was, to report myself for special service. On arriving there I handed my orders in to the proper officer, and reported for duty. Having a number of acquaintances around headquarters, I tried to find out for what purpose I was needed, or to what duty I would probably be assigned, but could get no information. All I could learn was from Colonel Rhett, Johnston's Adjutant-General, that the General would be out presently, and would himself tell me what he wanted me to do. After a while I was called into General Johnston's tent, and the General, looking at me, and seeming surprised that I was only a boy (for I was just twenty-one years old), began to question me quite closely as to what experience I had had in military affairs, how long I had been with the army, whether I could distinguish one branch of service from another, and the like. Having answered these questions to General Johnston's satisfaction, the latter laid a map of the Peninsula on the table before him, and began questioning me about the different roads and creeks and fording places, and other topographical matters on the Peninsula. Having shown myself sufficiently familiar with these matters, the General then turned to Colonel Rhett and remarked, “I think Mr. Bryan will do very well. You will please assign him to the balloon service to make the reconnoisances, and instruct him as to what information we want, and the kind of report we desire from him.” On hearing this order I at once sprang to my feet, protesting that while I could ride a horse, and would gladly do anything in my power, that I had never even seen a balloon, and that I knew absolutely nothing about the management of it, and that if the General simply wanted some information as to the position of the enemy and their numbers at any given point, that I would very cheerfully go into the lines and get this information and return as speedily as possible and report. My words had, however, small effect upon the  General. He told me very curtly and positively that I had been assigned to him for duty, and that he expected me to perform the duty to which I was assigned without any questions. He added that he had plenty of scouts already, and what he wanted was a man to go up in the balloon, and that I could now go and prepare myself to be in readiness when sent for. This was pretty hard, but as there was no sort of question about it, I could only make my bow and walk out with as brave an appearance as possible. Shortly afterwards I was fully instructed as to all the details; that there was a crew of men already in charge of the balloon, who understood the management of it, as to the inflating, letting it ascend and drawing it down again by means of the rope which was attached to it (which passed around a windlass), and I was also instructed in the signals that I should make when up in the balloon, by means of a wig-wag flag, to tell those below what was wanted, whether I wished to go fast or slow, up or down. I was also given such information as was at hand as to the supposed position of the enemy, and was instructed to carefully note where each different arm of the service (infantry, artilery, and cavelry) was located, and I was further told to make a memorandum or map of all that I saw while up in the balloon, so as to be able to give the best and most accurate account of all I saw when I returned—provided of course, that I returned at all.
Passing the danger line.
The balloon party were located behind a large thicket of pine trees about a half mile back of the Confederate lines, with a view of allowing the balloon to reach a considerable elevation before it could be seen by the enemy, who would, of course, fire at it in the hope of destroying it. As I had seen some artillery service, I was quite well aware that after attaining a certain height the ordinary field cannon could not be trained to bear upon me, so that the danger zone was only between the time I appeared above the top of the trees and the time when I should have reached such an elevation that their guns could no longer be trained upon me. My ardor to go on special service had been much cooled at the bare thought o being suspended in mid air by what appeared to me as a mere thread under a hot-air balloon, with the chances pretty strong that it would be burst by the shrapnel or shells of the enemy, when “down would come baby and all.” However, I determined to make best of a bad bargain, and went to the balloon  camp to study the situation and my new duties. I was not left long in suspense, for the next day I received an order from General Johnston to make my first ascension. The balloon was anchored to a long rope, probably a half of a mile long, which was tied to a tree and then coiled in a great number of coils, sailor fashion, on the ground, and then passed around a windlass, and was finally attached to a number of cords coming down from the balloon. From this cone of cords hung a good-sized hamper, or basket in which I was to stand or kneel and make my observations. It did not take a very long time (in fact, it was accomplished much too quickly for my liking) to fill the balloon with hot air, for a plentiful supply of pine knots and turpentine had been made (to create a great heat under a flue, the end of which opened into the balloon),so that very soon I was told that my aerial horse was ready for me to mount and ride away. Therefore, with note book and pencil in my pocket, and a heart beneath it beating very furiously (although of course I put on a brave front to those about me), I stepped into the basket and gave the signal to rise. At first the balloon was let off quite gradually, and I began to ascend slowly. “This is not so bad” I thought, but the worst was yet to come.
A target in mid air.
Hardly, however, had I got above the tree tops and obtained a view of the enemy's line than I observed a great commotion among them, men running here and there, and in a very few minutes they had run out a battery. I saw the officer in charge elevate the gun and carefully sight it at me, and give the signal to fire. ‘Boom!’ went the cannon, and the shell whistled by me in most unpleasant proximity. For some minutes shells and bullets from the schrapnels (which burst in front of me) whistled and sang around me with a most unpleasant music; but my balloon and I escaped. As you may readily imagine, I did not feel very happy or comfortable; on the contrary, I was scared nearly breathless, and was exceedingly nervous. I at once gave the signal, “faster,” and the balloon went upward more rapidly, and before long I reached an elevation above the line of fire, when I again signalled them to stop, and squatting down in the hamper, I tried to collect my thoughts and breathe more freely. I now began to recover my composure, when a most horrid thought intruded itself upon me. “Whatever goes up is bound to come down,” is a trite, but a sad, true saying. I knew well I could  not remain in this security forever; in fact, every moment that passed the hot air in my balloon became cooler. I therefore set to work. From my elevated position I could see the whole country in every direction. A wonderful panorama spread out beneath me. Chesapeake Bay, the York and the James rivers, Old Point Comfort and Hampton, and the fleets lying in both the York and the James, and the two opposing armies lying facing each other. I therefore took out my note-book and made a rough diagram showing the rivers, the roads and creeks, and marking where the different bodies of the enemy's troops were upon this little map, using the initial “I” for infantry, “C” for cavalry, “A” for artillery, and “W” for wagon trains, and I marked down about the number of troops that I estimated at each point. Now, this was not such an easy thing to do, as we may at first suppose, for the various currents of air made my balloon spin and revolve like a top (only very much slower), so that I must needs wait for a whole revolution to occur before I completed my sketch of any particular spot. Finally I gave the signal to lower the balloon, but hardly had I begun the descent when I saw that the enemy had prepared to give me a very warm reception as soon as I came within range, for they had run out a number of other batteries, and stood by their guns preparing for firing and aiming them at the spot I must pass on my way to terra firma. I therefore gave the signal, “faster—faster,” and the men at the windlass put forth their best efforts, working in relays, and as fast as they could. However, it seemed all too slow to me, for I was soon again in the danger zone, and the enemy's guns opened on me, firing this time by batteries, four and six at a time, and filling the air with shells and bullets, and how I escaped I do not know, for some of their shells passed very close to me.
Came down in safety.
However, after what seemed to me an age, the balloon was finally wound down, and I stepped out of my basket once more upon Mother Earth. Mounting my horse I rode to General Johnston's headquarters to make my report. The General listened intently to what I told him, and asked very particularly as to the position of the different branches of the service, and as to their numbers, and spreading out his map on the table, made me show him where the the different bodies of troops, artillery, and so on, were posted.  When I had finished my report the General complimented me by saying I had done very well indeed. Therefore, at leaving I felt that my experiences were a thing of the past, and requested the General to assign me to the same duties which I had performed before I had joined him. “My dear sir,” replied the General, “I fear you forget that you are the only experienced aeronaut that I have with my army, and you will please hold yourself in readiness, as we may wish you to make another ascension at any time!” I felt complimented, but I was not elated. That evening the whole balloon force was ordered to move to another point, somewhere nearer Yorktown, as the General did not think it safe that the balloons should go up from the same place again. Also, arrangement was made for increasing the speed in hauling down the balloon. This was that six artillery horses were hitched to the end of the rope which passed through the windlass, and upon the signal to lower the balloon they were ridden up the road and at full gallop, which brought the balloon down much more quickly. In a day or two a second ascent was made, at the Genereral's orders, which was much like the first one, but with somewhat less trepidation by General Johnston's “only experienced aeronaut,” who had already been nicknamed by his fellow soldiers “Balloon Bryan,” and who was suspected by them of having a screw loose somewhere on account of his mad trips in the air, General Johnston received the second report about as he did the first, but still refused to discharge me from the balloon service, but ordered me to hold myself in readiness.
A trip by night.
A few nights later I made another, and, I am glad to say, my last ascension, which came near being my last trip in anything; but I shall proceed to narrate that occurrence. One night, just before the body fell back from Yorktown and fought the battle of Williamsburg (which was the 5th of May, 1862), the balloon squad was waked up one night with orders from General Johnston to fire up the balloon and make a reconnoisance as soon as possible. The courier who brought the order informed me privately that information had been received at headquarters from some of the scouts that the enemy was in motion  and that General Johnston was very anxious to ascertain in what direction the move was to be made, and whether their troops were advancing upon more than one point. It was at this time near the full moon and the nights were as bright, almost as day. As soon, therefore, as the balloon was inflated I jumped into my basket, feeling quite at ease, as I had already made two ascensions, and as this was to be a night trip, I had but little fear of discovery and of being fired on, especially as the enemy were now in motion, and when marching could not so well arrange for this artillery service. But there was a still greater danger upon which I had never calculated. The Confederate troops, almost to a man, had never seen a balloon, and each time that I went up they crowded around the balloon squad to watch this novel performance, and amused themselves by making many and varied remarks, which were not very complimentary upon the whole business and myself in particular. On this occasion the balloon, shining in the bright firelight, attracted a larger crowd than usual, and the crew in charge had great difficulty in keeping them back out of their way, so they could properly perform their work. I therefore entered the basket and gave the signal to rise, feeling, as I have said, unusually comfortable, and I had ascended about two hundred feet when, all at once, without any warning, the balloon was jerked upward as if by some great force for about two miles, so it seemed to me. I was breathless and gasping, and trembling like a leaf from fear without knowing what had happened beyond the surmise that the rope which held me to the earth had broken. What had actually occurred I afterwards found was this: One of the soldiers who was drawn by curiosity to see the balloon ascend had crowded, with the others, too near, and had unwittingly stepped into the coil of rope, one end of which was attached to the balloon, which, before he could step out again, tightened around his leg and began pulling him up to the windlass, whereupon he screamed loudly, and one of his friends seized an axe and cut the rope, releasing him, but also releasing me. Now, there I was, feeling as if I was a couple of miles up in the air, absolutely helpless, with no idea of how to manage my runaway steed, and with every prospect that I would eventually very reluctantly land in the enemy's lines, which meant a long term of imprisonment, or else that my balloon would come down in the Chesapeake Bay, with no means of my regaining the shore, which perhaps meant being  drowned, but which I much preferred to the former. These thoughts were not of a very consoling nature. One thing I knew was that when the heat died out of the balloon I must make a graceful descent; but as to where I should land I could not even guess. To say that I was frightened but faintly expresses it, for the almost instantaneous ascent I had made had not only taken all the breath out of my body, but seemed also to have deprived me of all my nerve and courage for the time being. However, after a while I recovered my breath and found, upon careful examination, that my heart was beating much as usual. The balloon had now reached its equilibrium, and was apparently standing quietly (for there was little air stirring) over the Confederate army, and I was looking down to where, far below me, lay the York river and the surrounding country which I knew so well.
Blown back and forth.
I was not long left to enjoy the beauties of this scene, for the wind freshened up, and, to my utmost dismay, I found myself being blown from the Confederate lines over into those of the enemy. It is impossible to describe my feelings. I felt that I was not only leaving my home and friends forever, but was slowly drifting to certain capture. Imagine, therefore, my great delight when, after drifting along for some distance, the wind veered and I was blown back toward the Confederate lines. (This ascension had been made from a point back of Dam No. 2, i. e., Wynn's Mill, on the Confederate lines. It was evident that the balloon was cooling and settling, so that I was getting nearer and nearer to the earth. This was in many respects a great comfort, but it was not unalloyed with new dangers. As I have said, the balloon having now drawn near the earth (a few hundred feet above it I suppose) I was blown from the enemy's lines over the Confederate army, but, alas! in a far different locality from where I had ascended. Therefore, when my balloon passed over the spot where Col. Ward's Second Florida Regiment was encamped, they turned out en masse, and believing me to be a Yankee spy, followed me on foot, firing at me as fast as they could. In vain I cried to them that I was a good Confederate; the only answer I received was from the whistling of their bullets. I was as a thing haunted, and knew not which way to turn. However, the wind freshened again, and I was  blown out over York river, which, although half a mile wide at Yorktown, is three or four miles wide where I was now suspended in the air. The balloon began now to settle quite rapidly, and it was evident that I would be dumped unceremoniously in the middle of this broad expanse of water.
A friendly wind.
I, therefore, began to undress, preparatory to my long swim, but I regret to record that being a young man I was what is termed “somewhat dressy,” and I had on a pair of very tight fitting boots, which, do what I might, I found impossible to pull off, and after tugging and scuffling in every conceivable position that my cramped quarters in the basket would permit, and still being unable to rid myself of those accursed boots (which were not long since my joy and pride.) I fortunately remembered my pocket knife, and had soon ripped them down the back and joyfully dropped them over the edge of my basket. The balloon was now so near the river that I could hear my rope splashing in the water as it dragged along over the surface and I was waiting to begin my swim at any moment when the wind again changed and blew me towards the Williamsburg shore. This was, indeed, luck of the greatest kind. After travelling a short distance inland, my balloon, by this time having settled nearly to the ground, I slipped over the side of the basket and sliding down the rope safely, joyfully stood once more on my native heath. I had landed in an orchard, and running with my rope, as the balloon passed over an apple tree, I twisted it quickly about the tree trunk, and after a few ineffectual flops, my balloon sank, exhausted to the ground. What remains to be told can be related in a few words. I dressed myself as quickly as possible and made my way to a neighboring farm house, where, after quite a hot discussion with the farmer, I succeeded in securing a horse and rode back to General Johnston's Headquarters, a distance of about eight miles, and made my report as to my experience and as to what I had seen. On this trip my balloon had (so far as I can judge) made a halt moon circuit of about fifteen miles, about four miles of which was over York River. As to the height to which I attained I cannot well compute. The information which I was able to give General Johnston as  to the roads upon which the enemy were now moving, enabled him to prepare for an attack which was made by them early the next morning just before day. I was among those who awaited the approach of the enemy, and you will pardon me if I say that it gave me no little satisfaction to aim my rifle at those who had so recently and so frequently taken a wing shot at me.