Friday, May 6, 2011

John Randolph Bryan: The Confederate Aeronaut, 1862

As a child my grandfather was given a book called Brave Deeds of Confederate Soldiers. It fell open to the name "Bryan" so naturally he read on:

A certain Captain Bryan, a young aide-de-camp of General Magruder's, was borrowed by Gen. Joseph E. Johnston in the spring of '62 and sent up in in a balloon made up of hundreds of Sunday-go-to-meeting silk dresses. His mission: to map McClellan's dispositions around Yorktown. Bryan had never seen a balloon before. This one was blinding in its blaze of colors. It was controlled by a cable from a drum and windlass.

Well, the balloon bounced and whirled and rocked, and the Yankees shot at it with everything they had, but Bryan managed to do his job and get down again. He gave the maps to General Johnston and asked, in the stilted language of that time, "Will you not now, sir, reassign me to General Magruder?"

"Sir," Johnston said--and his smile was lined with sharp teeth--"you forget that you are my only experienced aeronaut. Pray hold yourself in readiness for another ascension at any moment!"

Next day he went up again. This time, as he was being wound down, a sky-gazing soldier got his sleeve caught between the cable and the drum and his arm was being drawn in and crushed when someone snatched up an ax and cut the cable. The balloon rocketed skyward until its hot air cooled. Then it fell like an anvil--fortunately, splashing down into the York River, and Bryan swam safely ashore.

My grandfather was impressed by the story and turned back to the beginning:
"John Randolph Bryan...born in Gloucester County...": Why, that sounded like his Great-uncle Ran! He read on:"Youthful and sturdy...brave as a lion..." The John Randolph Bryan he knew had a huge grey beard, and his knuckles were swollen and calloused from his trick of gnawing them when he brooded. Could they possibly be the same person?

Suddenly he knew that they had to be and right then a war that hitherto has been impossibly remote now drew so close that it seemed to have ended just the other day.

The drawings are by Salvatore Murdoca from the Burke Davis book Runaway Baloon: The Last Flight of Confederate Air Force One. Most of the words are from my grandfather, J Bryan III from his book The Sword Over The Mantel.

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