Can you guess when and where America’s very first aerial flight took place? I have to admit I was very surprised to come across mention of the balloon launch while researching for Becoming Lady Washington. I was reading a (to me) fascinating book by Frank E. Grizzard, Jr., entitled George Washington: A Biographical Companion. This book is comprised of encyclopedia-style entries on various topics and individuals important to George Washington. The entries provide some insights into the people and events associated with him. Under the “Balloons” entry, is the following:
“Washington was especially pleased when during his presidency another French aeronaut decided to fly a balloon in Philadelphia, offering him a chance to actually witness firsthand these amazing feats against gravity. The Frenchman, Jean Pierre Blanchard, appealed to Washington for a ‘passport’ on the day of his flight, 9 January 1793, which Washington gladly provided:
“To all to whom these presents shall come. The bearer hereof, Mr. Blanchard, a citizen of France, proposing to ascend in a balloon from the city of Philadelphia at 10 A.M. this day to pass in such direction and to descend in such place as circumstances may render most convenient.
“These are there to recommend to all citizens of the United States and others that in his passage, descent, return, or journeying elsewhere, they oppose no hindrance or molestation to the said Mr. Blanchard: and that on the contrary, they receive and aid him with that humanity and good will which may render honor to their country and justice to an individual so distinguished by his efforts to establish and advance his art in order to make it useful to mankind in general.”
During my reading about Martha Washington and her life and times, I found mention of her taking the children up to the roof to watch the fireworks for Independence Day while George was president. So, knowing the details of the balloon flight, I included her watching the balloon launch from the roof of the President’s House in Philadelphia. Here’s how I envisioned the scene:
The new year of 1793 brought a unique opportunity for the residents of Philadelphia. On a cold day in January, a French aeronaut, Jean Pierre Blanchard, launched a hydrogen-gas balloon from the center of the city. Actually, he launched from the center of the yard of the Walnut Street Prison a few blocks away from the presidential mansion. Although the ascension wouldn’t occur until ten in the morning, two field artillery pieces fired every fifteen minutes beginning at six to remind everyone of the event. I took the family up onto the roof of the kitchen, to listen to the brass band playing the martial music from within the court yard of the prison and to watch the yellow silk balloon inflated with gas. We had a wonderful view of the massive crowds gathered for the event.
George went in his coach to deliver a handwritten pass to Blanchard, asking on his behalf for any one he met to provide assistance as needed. The pass was a necessity since Blanchard spoke little English and didn’t know where exactly he might land. Once on the ground, he’d need help to bring the balloon safely back into the city. I suppressed a giggle as I imagined some startled farmer in a panic at the strange sight of a flying man in a balloon. What I wouldn’t give to witness such a sight for myself.
Fifteen cannon boomed, acknowledging the president’s arrival at the launch site. Another blast of the cannon several minutes later announced the launch of the apparatus, and in another minute we could see the yellow balloon gently rise into the air. Blanchard stood in the basket, waving a flag in one hand and holding his hat in the other as he nodded to the crowd’s exclamations.
Indeed, every roof and steeple surrounding us teemed with astonished people, waving and mouths open in awe. The streets appeared to be impassable with the thousands of onlookers. Blanchard rose slowly in a vertical fashion until a light breeze took charge and carried him toward the Delaware and eventually out of sight. January 9, 1793 would go down in the history books as the day of the first-ever aerial voyage in our young country’s history. The entire family relished witnessing history in the making. And yet my heart longed for our imminent journey home in a few short months.
While I do not know if this is indeed how she watched, or even if she watched, I do believe if given the opportunity she would welcome the chance to witness this amazing feat. She went to plays and curiosities and wax museums and to see the elephants on multiple occasions. So why wouldn’t she go up on the roof with the children to let them also experience the thrill of seeing a man fly in the sky?
It’s frequently surprising to me what I stumble across during my reading and researching. I hope you enjoy this tidbit of American history, too!
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Martha “Patsy” Custis manages an immense eighteenth-century plantation in the Virginia colony. But as a young widow she’s hard pressed to balance her business and to care for her two young children. They need a father and protector. She needs a husband and business partner…one she can trust, especially now as tensions rise between the motherland and the American colonies. Her experience and education have sustained her thus far but when her life veers in an unexpected direction, she realizes she has so much more to learn.
Colonel George Washington takes an interest in her and she’s surprised to find him so sociable and appealing. They form an instant bond and she is certain he’ll be a likeable and loving husband and father figure for her children. She envisions a quiet life at Mount Vernon, working together to provide for their extended family.
But when trouble in the form of British oppression, taxes, and royal arrogance leads to revolt and revolution, George must choose between duty to country and Martha. Compelled to take matters into her own hands, Martha must decide whether to remain where she belongs or go with her husband…no matter what the dangerous future may hold.