01009 - Staff of Gen. Andrew Porter; Lt. George A. Custer reclining [LC-DIG-cwpb-01009]
"I had the finest view I ever had in my life and could see both armies at once." Lt. Custer, first experience in observation balloon
Sending a guy up in a balloon to observe the enemy is harder than it sounds.
It turns out that professional balloonists' info was not always militarily useful. The next observer, Gen Fitz-John Porter, could have been captured or killed when his balloon broke its moorings, blew over confederate lines before crashing into a tree in federal territory. The third observer was someone more expendable - 2nd Lt. Custer, then assigned to Porter's staff.
"I was told to take with me in my balloon ascent a field glass, compass, pencil, and notebook. With these I was supposed to be able, after attaining the proper elevation, to discover, locate, and record the works and encampments of the enemy. The balloon was kept but a short distance from Gen Smith's headquarters, fastened to the earth by numerous ropes, like a wild untamable animal. Thither I proceeded, my mind not entirely free from anxious doubts as to how the expedition would terminate."
Despite his initial jitters, Custer became comfortable climbing into the willow basket or "car", rising above the tree tops to see the theatre of operations of two armies. He became adapt at noting enemy gun emplacements, counting campfires, and plotting the number of white tents and sketching their positions in his notebook.
About 2:00 AM on May 4th, 1862, Custer on his second ascension of the night, became aware that the Confederates had abandoned Yorktown. It was confirmed at dawn when he couldn't spot any breakfast fires.
Gen McClellan, having spent months hauling in siege guns, ordered a pursuit. On May 5th, Custer was ordered to ride ahead to seek detours for the troops. He discovered the Skiff Creek bridge had just been set on fire and protected by a sniper. With guns blazing he scared off the sharpshooter and was able to stamp out the fire with his feet and hands. Having saved the bridge for the troops to cross, Custer was officially cited for gallantry for this action.