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The Runaway Balloon

Union Army Balloon Corps crew filling the Intrepid during the Civil War (LoC photo).
Union Army Balloon Corps crew filling the Intrepid during the Civil War (LoC photo).

When the Union army headed north in June 1863 for the summer campaign, it left behind its observation balloon which had been floating high enough for riders to observe the distant Confederate lines. Hence, there were no balloons at the ensuing Battle of Gettysburg.

However, a Gettysburg man a few years before the war got a bird’s-eye view of what would become the battlefield. He also drifted into adjacent York County before he decided enough was enough.

Here is his story, adapted from the October 12, 1842, edition of the Lancaster Examiner and Herald newspaper, repeating a story printed in the York Gazette of a few days earlier.

John Wise's balloon.
John Wise’s balloon.

In October 1842, internationally famous aeronaut John Wise, a native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, announced plans to make his 39th ascent, an unparalleled number in that era. He planned to leave from an enclosure built in Gettysburg. At the appointed hour, as crews filled the balloon with gas, he tossed a grappling iron and bags of sand ballast into the passenger basket and prepared for the launch.

As Wise began to step into the  basket, a young Gettysburg man named John McClellan asked him if it was possible for two persons to ride in the balloon. Upon Wise’s negative reply, McClellan was very disappointed.

He was determined to get his first balloon ride.

Very determined.

He asked Wise how much it would cost to take the voyage alone.

“One hundred dollars, sir!” came Wise’s answer, knowing that this sum was extraordinary and would readily discourage the young man.

“I will give you fifty dollars,” McClellan calmly replied.

“Agreed — fork it over!” Wise quickly retorted, thinking that McClellan was merely joking.

He humored McClellan by allowing him to climb into the basket, still not thinking the man was serious.

“Cut loose!” shouted McClellan, fulling intending to take a ride.

Famed aeronaut John Wise.
Famed aeronaut John Wise.

Wise, thinking the joke had gone far enough, requested that McClellan step out of the basket because the advertised time had arrived for his own trek and a crowd had gathered in the expectation of seeing the famed balloonist in action. However, McClellan stubbornly refused repeated entreaties, stating that he had hired and paid for a  ride “in this boat,” and go he would.

Wise then made a critical error in judgement. He released the ground line enough for McClellan to make a short ascent, thinking that his gesture would be sufficient to satisfy the man. In addition, it was very windy and the basket was rocking back and forth. Wise assumed this would quickly bring the stubborn McClellan to his senses.


McClellan pulled a knife from his pocket and to Wise’s shock, quickly cut the ground line.

Knowing the danger the untrained passenger now faced, Wise hastily shouted a few cursory instructions on how to operate the balloon. In just a few minutes, after tossing out a couple bags of sand, the daring and impetuous McClellan was flying two miles above Gettysburg.

However, the wind was strong and was blowing from the west. Soon, McClellan and the balloon were out of sight and sailing rapidly toward York County. From the height, McClellan was enjoying the view. Off to the distance to the south he could see Hagerstown; to the north Carlisle. As he floated eastward, Abbottstown, New Oxford, and Hanover came into view.

Off ahead of him soon he spotted York, the largest town in the region. He decided that York was a good destination to set the balloon down. However, at the speed he was traveling, he would soon be over the town and he risked sailing past it. He pulled the string attached to the gas valve in order to release some of the gas and begin the descent into York.

However, in his experience and his haste, he yanked too hard on the valve rope and pulled it completely off its hinges. It tumbled down into the car. John McClellan was still a mile above the earth, the gas was rushing out, and he knew he could soon die.

He was in luck, however.

A gust of wind caught the deflated silk balloon and turned into into a parachute, allowing the balloon and its now terrified occupant to fall to the earth at a slower pace. McClellan recalled one of Wise’s instructions. He located the grappling iron among the items stored in the basket and just as he was preparing to toss it out, “the earth bounced up against the bottom of the car!” in McClellan’s later words.

He was safe.

His approach had not gone unnoticed.

When the balloon was still some 13 miles west of York, townspeople (including a reporter) spotted it.

“It appeared to be approaching directly toward our town,” the reporter later wrote after interviewing McClellan, “until the valve was pulled and it had fallen considerably. As it fell, it seemed to find a current that bore it rapidly toward the North. The spot at which it landed is about North West of our borough.”

The exact location has been lost to history, but it is likely McClellan landed in West Manchester, Dover, or Manchester Township.

“The escape of gas was distinctly seen from York;” the reporter added, “and as the balloon neared the earth it had lost its rotundity and appeared to the gazers here to come down heavily like a wet sheet.”


“Colonel” John H. McClellan was one of four sons (out of 12 children) of William McClellan. According to a post on by Licensed Battlefield Guide Deb Novotny, he received “but limited educational advantages, and began life as a clerk in the bank at Gettysburg, which position he filled for thirty-three and one-third years, one-third of a century. He has been a successful business man, and has recently erected a block of buildings in Gettysburg, which stand as a monument to his enterprise. In 1840 he was appointed treasurer of the county, and served until 1843, when he was elected to the same office. Mr. McClellan is identified with the Presbyterian Church, and is highly esteemed for his excellent qualities. He has never married.” He is perhaps best known to Gettysburg buffs as the proprietor of the McClellan Hotel on the northeastern corner of “the Diamond,” Gettysburg’s town square. He died in 1886 and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery.

John Wise continued his barnstorming tour and became known as one of the leading innovators in ballooning in the 19th century. Shortly after the start of the Civil War, Wise competed with his rival Thaddeus Lowe and others for the privilege of being named as Chief Aeronaut of the new Balloon Corps. He and Lowe rushed to the battlefield at Manassas (First Bull Run). Lowe got there first, but Wise produced a commission. Men from the 28th Pennsylvania filled his balloon and Wise stepped in. In his own haste, he tangled it in some trees. His military service was over, and Lowe would go on to fame.

On September 28, 1879, at the age of 71, John Wise and a passenger named George Burr disappeared when their balloon “Pathfinder” took off in high winds from East St. Louis, Illinois, and flew out of control toward Lake Michigan. Burr’s body was located; no trace has ever been found of Wise or his wayward balloon.