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Zeppelin in America
May 23, '21

Zeppelin in America

ZEPPELIN in Minnesota

The Count's Own Story.

THE FACT THAT Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin had his earliest experience in a balloon over St. Paul in 1863 was established beyond much question in an article that appeared nearly two years ago in Minnesota History. Research in the St. Paul news- papers of 1863 revealed that Zeppelin had registered at the International Hotel on August 17, and that two days later a number of captive ascensions were made from a vacant lot across the street by an itinerant balloonist named John H. Steiner. Steiner took up paying passengers, and the man who later built the first rigid airship was among them.

“The count . . . is about fifty years old, moustached, and rather good looking. His wife the Gräfin of a similar age, is most charming, simple, and pleasant. Their welcome, so unassuming, friendly, and gracious, put us immediately at our ease, and for two and a half days we were made a part of their attractive family (which consists three boys and a girl ranging in ages from 18 to 10, and a beautiful Irish setter — age unknown).”

Most of our time at Mittelbiberach was spent in the count's combined library, office, and sitting room. It is a comfortably crowded room, located between his wife's parlor and the dining room, and its furniture shows many years of continued hard use. . . . There are family paintings all over the place, and a library of handsome, hand-tooled leather bindings. . . . Scanning the titles, I found many of them to be 17th and 18th century French, English, and Italian works on warfare and defense fortifications.

In this setting, Mr. and Mrs. Dunn and the count read the letters written by Zeppelin to his father from the time he first proposed an American trip to September, 1863, when he returned to New York from his midwestern journey. After some discussion, the count graciously agreed to allow the five letters written from the Midwest to be copied and gave his permission for their publication by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Through the co-operative efforts described above, the general outline of Zeppelin's activities in the United. States has become clear. Like a number of other alert young European military men, he had become convinced that much could be learned from the struggle going on in America, and he had applied to the king of Württemberg for permission to make some firsthand observations. The king was impressed with the idea and readily granted him a leave of absence.

His father was not so easily won over, but at last the old count dropped his objections to the trip and Zeppelin was free to start, going by way of Ostend and London to Liverpool. After arriving in New York on May 6, he traveled to Philadelphia, where he visited for a short while, then on to Washington. There, some time before May 21, he put up at the Willard Hotel.

Whether he already knew Davidow or first became acquainted with him in Washington is not certain. The answer to this as well as other questions lies hidden in the letters still at Schloss Mittelbiberach. It was, however, the young Russian who presented him to Rudolf Schleiden, the Hanseatic ambassador. Schleiden found Zeppelin "an extraordinarily nice little man, with a range of interests unusual in a cavalry officer," and he also noted in his diary: “The way, too, that he spoke to-day about the importance of the nobility in our day was most reasonable and liberal-minded, doing him great credit'' Thus impressed, the ambassador, who had years of experience in Washington, undertook the young visitor's introduction to the society of the capital and acted as a friend and counselor throughout his stay.

Zeppelin met many members of the foreign colony and a few American officials notably Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, at whose home he visited. An interview with President Abraham Lincoln was arranged, and after hearing the young count's desire to observe the organization and operations of the Union army, the president dictated a letter to the secretary of war and the secretary of state, suggesting that a military pass be granted to him.

Having received the pass, Zeppelin next obtained a horse and hired a Negro servant named Louis. This man, whom he probably learned of through Schleiden or some member of the ambassador's household, proved a loyal and useful follower. The count was not yet ready to take the field, however, for he found his uniform — that of a first lieutenant in the army of Wurttemberg — too elaborate for American military circles. He had the heavy epaulettes and gold-trimmed velvet collar removed, lest he look like a major general. This done, he proceeded to join the Army of the Potomac, then in camp near Falmouth, Virginia.

Traffic was heavy between the capital and army headquarters, and he had no trouble in finding his way by steamer and train, but when he arrived he learned that General Joseph-Hooker, to whom he carried a letter of introduction, was in Washington for the weekend.

Speaking little English and knowing no one, he was at a loss what to do until he was befriended by a German-speaking Swedish officer, who invited the count to share his tent.

The officer was Captain Frederick Anton Ulrik Rosencrantz. He appears at the far right in a group of Union officers with whom Zeppelin was photographed by Alexander Gardner.

Captain Frederick Anton Ulrik Rosencrantz.

Von Zeppelin

Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy.

" His presence on Hooker's staff is confirmed by Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June 20, 1863, p. 195.

When General Joseph-Hooker returned he received the young German cordially, and for the next month Zeppelin was associated with the general's staff. He frequented the canteen bar, made a wide circle of acquaintances, and seems to have enjoyed the conviviality and unaccustomed informality of camp life. But he saw no action until June 20, when he took part in a night ride with a cavalry detachment carrying dispatches to General Alfred Pleasonton. Next day he witnessed the Battle of Ashby's Gap, in which Confederate cavalry led by General J. E. B. Stuart held off the Union forces under Pleasonton.

As a non-combatant he was barred from taking part in the fighting, but he did perform some reconnaissance for the general and at one point found himself hotly pursued by a band of Confederate cavalry.

After the battle he made his way back, exhausted from the long hours of riding and excitement, until he reached Fairfax Court House, where he found his servant and his baggage. Louis made pancakes, and Zeppelin gulped down his first meal in two days. A short time later he apparently saw some skirmishing near Fredricksburg, but on June 27 General Joseph-Hooker was relieved of command, and the count must have left the army soon after that. He was not present at the battle of Gettsyburg on July 1-3.

After discharging Louis and winding up his other business in Washington, he returned to New York and was there during the draft riots of July 13-15. A day or so later he hoarded boarded a train for the West. His movements from that time can be followed in the letters below, which have been translated by Mrs. Dunn.The first was addressed to "My Beloved Father" from Detroit, Michigan, on July 24, 1863.

You have very likely figured out from my schedule that since leaving the magnificent Niagara Falls I have advanced quite a distance westward. The railroad from there to here runs along the southern and western shores of Lake Erie at varying distances [from the water] and across an almost open plain. Lake Erie, one of the smaller of the group of lakes, still has quite a respectable width according to the map, and its opposite shore cannot be seen. The flat shore line offers little variety, and the lake's surface has not the powerful attraction of the open sea. Yet one's soaring imagination likes to picture it as endless.

I beg you not to believe that the trip has been monotonous because of the uniformity of the landscape. During the journey, which, with stops, has up to now taken three days, I have for the first time been personally impressed by the grandeur of the American continent. After traveling so long at the speed of an American locomotive over a level countryside, one cannot but feel that

this can go on and on and that there is no end to it. Only then does one realize how exposed is the uninterrupted flatland to storms born in the Gulf of Mexico which rage without hindrance northward until they finally die over the cold ice fields of the north. — This is definitely more impressive than the stretch from Biberach to Ravensburg. . . .

My principal purpose [in making this journey] was to get as many actual impressions as possible of the cultural history of this part of the world. My first real life picture: While in a [railroad] station I observed through the window something that left me with an extraordinary feeling — two [Indian] girls between twelve and fifteen years of age and a small boy offering beadwork for sale from a small basket. I have seen Greeks and Turks, Chinese, mulattoes and Negroes, but never human beings belonging to a savage tribe. I would not have expected such a great difference in appearance, at least not one so startling at first sight. These Indian children were neither ugly nor overly tall, nor were their faces disfigured by tattooing. On the contrary — all three were well-proportioned humans, their height equal to ours at the same age. Large, deep, dark eyes sparkle from copper-brown faces — pretty faces with a friendly and astonishingly intelligent expression. What was it that gave their over-all appearance the unmistakable stamp of the wilderness? I do not know!

Give a tame and a wild pigeon to a man who has never before seen either. Will he take one for the other? — Certainly not!

Another real life picture: The train travels through a dense, seemingly impassable forest. In one spot I see a man with an ax trimming long trunks of felled trees, which he will use to build a protective fence for his sheep straight through the dense forest. Farther on similar fences surround partially cleared lots where only stumps have been left standing a few feet off the ground. Here graze oxen, cows, and sometimes horses. Now follows a large plot completely stripped of timber, in the middle of which stands a small wooden house. Next to it, depending on the size of the lot, are one, two, three, or more small wooden barns or sheds. Maize and potato fields, but few wheat fields, surround the buildings. Thus the European starts to till the ground for production.

July 25. Third life picture: Buffalo, Erie, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, are our stop- ping points. All are cities brought into ex- istence as if by magic during the very recent past to satisfy the demands of traffic on the great waterways. (The small streams shown on the map, which look like tributaries, are really large, deep rivers joined by canals with the Ohio and Mississippi river system and with the Hudson.) These places appear to have sprouted overnight. Around the original location of a few fishing and boating huts, workshops and stores were first built. Then came the adjacent railroad line — a single track with a discarded railroad car as a station. I noticed these still in use at today's smaller stations. Large depots resting on slender pilings over the water's edge have now been built, to and from which boats and trains carry goods in all directions. These depots are flanked by big buildings with large painted signs advertising their grand bargains.

Toledo, its history dating from 1836, is today one of the major markets for farm produce. The principal goods are copper, iron, fruit, an enormous amount of maize, coal, wood, salt, flour, and lumber. Cleve- land, a city since 1796, has a population of 60,000. . . . In spite of the unusually at- tractive houses of wealthy merchants, their many and good schools, and their numerous stylish churches, these cities lack the cozy character of our own towns. Buffalo stands out because of Mr. Ziegele's good beer, reminiscent of Drake's rarest!

Forgive the haste and the ending of this letter, but my time is short. At two o'clock we — Davidow and another Russian, a well- educated man with an attractive personal- ity— are leaving on board the "Traveller" to explore Lake Superior. Then from Supe- rior City we cross the peaceable Indian ter- ritory along the upper Mississippi [and go] by way of St. Paul — La Crosse — Madison — Milwaukee — [to] Chicago. Only from there will it be possible for me to write letters — in fourteen days or longer, God willing.

The steamer "Traveller," built in 1852, ran regularly between Cleveland and Superior, with stops at intermediate ports. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer of July 24, it was known for its elegant accommodation, speed, safety, and gentlemanly officers. On this trip it carried an unusually large number of tourists “on a grand excursion to the romantic regions of Lake Superior!”

The Lake Superior Miner of Ontonogan, Michigan noted on August 1,1863, that when the "Traveller" stopped there every stateroom was full, and among the passengers were "Counts, Consuls, and other foreigners" — an obvious reference to Zeppelins party.

When he recalled the five-day voyage years later, the count's most vivid impression was of flirting with "some beautiful American girls, who were as anxious to get acquainted with me as I was with them. They finally broke the ice by flipping apple seeds into my face, and then we had a jolly talk." In describing the trip for his father, however, he sticks to more dignified subjects. His next letter was written from Superior, Wisconsin, on July 30.

The short time that remains before the ship's departure does not permit me to make a report telling you about the grand and remarkable things I have seen in a wilderness a thousand miles from civilization. It is not completely wild, however, where man has discovered beneath the unproductive soil exciting treasures like iron, copper, or silver.

Generally one comes upon a settlement in a charming harbor where nature has placed great quantities of densely growing grass. Here can usually be seen several large buildings where cast iron is beaten and the metal washed and melted, a number of wooden dwellings, and, yes — the church.

My hand trembles as I write, since at the same time my traveling companions and I are packing our necessary baggage. The rest of it will be sent back by boat. Tomorrow or the day after we will go with two Indians up the St. Louis River in my canoe. In ten to fourteen days we should be in St. Paul on the Mississippi. Until then, apparently, we pass through only one human settlement. . . . I feel enormously well and am, I am told, obviously growing heavier.

THE CANOE trip took longer than expected, and it was not until eighteen days later, on August 17, that Zeppelin commenced a letter from St. Paul.

Map: The area of Minnesota and Wisconsin

visited by Zeppelin

This time of remarkable and delightful events has been troubled by the thought of leaving you for so long without news. But how should I have forwarded my let- ter? Three weeks ago, while already within the edge of the wilderness, I encountered the last mail carrier: an Indian paddling down the St. Louis River. His speed and haste were such that he did not hear the warning calls and almost capsized our light birch-bark canoe. Three days ago in Crow Wing, the highest point on the Mississippi, we saw the first newspaper.

You can imagine our excitement when we read about Russia's sharp answer — so sharp that Austria, France, and England were about to present an ultimatum. Strangely enough, we read that war was inevitable, pending additional discussion. For three days we have been living in un- certainty.- Probably you are laughing! — May God grant that it be so! — at our gulli- bility, but imagine our position: we lack all connecting links, all news about developments during the past four weeks, from mid- June to mid-July — and if that much heat has accumulated, little is needed to set the house afire. I am burning with eagerness to hear definite news. The surroundings here have somewhat lost their charm for me — my thoughts are abroad with you.

August 18. Still no news! Do not scold me for not having mailed yesterday's letter. You would not have received it any sooner. Tonight I am adding only a few lines; the oppressive heat and traveling by stagecoach have made me too tired to accomplish more. Tomorrow this letter accompanies me by

steamboat to La Crosse. From there it will continue its journey to the seacoast, while I will find my way to Chicago. . . .

I regret I cannot give you a description of our fortnight in the wilderness — the experiences are too many, the impressions too varied! There is the feeling you have when you know you are all alone in the midst of primitive, unspoiled nature. You can laugh, cry, shout, shoot, throw yourself into the rushing current of a river; you can set fire to the woods, and no human soul cares about it. You are alone with the Crea- tor in his magnificent temple. There is the soil on which you walk, the vegetation, the animal life inhabiting the forest — from the bear to the much, much worse mousquitos [sic]. There is the strange way of traveling by canoe, and when the highest ridge of land is reached, of carrying it across over your head. There is the rocky island in the midst of a rushing stream, as de- scribed by [James Fenimore] Cooper in his novels, and the stillness of a lake on whose shore the Indian erects his fleeting wigwam. The swampy savanna is there with its high grass. There are the hardships of the march: heat; thirst, when water is lacking because of the unusual drouth; hunger, when ammunition and provisions come to an end. Because of the lowest water ever, we trav- eled at a slower pace [than planned]. Today my Russian companions are still claiming that a water rat is a good dish, although for my part I did not enjoy it! Through the thick forest there are the In- dian paths not any wider than a hand. Only a skilled eye can find them. Above all, there are the Indians themselves — their ways and customs; their wild calls and songs; the strange war stories; their dwellings; their skill (one of our guides shot a duck in flight at sixty paces with one shot and one bullet); and what is more, there is the [In- dian] language which can create the word "Schingkubabo" for eggs.

Where we hit the Mississippi it is rather wide but very shallow. Here I draw a sketch to help you trace our way on the map:


Crow Wing is a small town of about two hundred people who trade with the Indians. We found a tavern there but its condition was such that we preferred to continue sleeping in the open. That brought me around to adding up and realizing that since I started this trip I have slept a full ten weeks outside a house — three on boats and railroads, four in a tent, and three under the open sky. It took us two days to travel by stagecoach from Crow Wing to St. Anthony. From there we went in our own [hired] carriage to St. Paul, so that [on the way] we could look at Minnehaha Falls and Fort Ribley [sic] (against Indians) . Once again we are enjoying civilization. I have made the acquaintance of the famous aeronaut

Prof. Steiner, who has invented a new kind of balloon suitable for military reconnaissance.

The departure from St. Paul for at least one day — probably because he wanted to make a balloon ascension with Steiner, and the weather on the 18th was unfavourable.

In a postscript to his previous letter, dated August 19 and written on the stationery of St. Paul's International Hotel, he told his father of the experience.

”Just now I ascended with Prof. Steiner, the famous aeronaut, to an altitude of six or seven hundred feet. The ground is exceptionally fitted for demonstrating the importance of the balloon in military recon- naissance. The Mississippi with St. Paul [is in a valley], and westward of the latter a mile from the river, lies a ridge of hills running parallel with it. This forms a very good defensive position against an aggressor marching up through the valley. There is no tower, no elevation high enough to study the distribution of the defender's troops on the gentle, open slope behind his battle line. From the high position of the balloon these could be completely surveyed. Should one want to harass with artillery fire the troops deployed in reserve on the other slope, the battery could be informed by telegraphic signals where their projectiles hit. The above technique has at times been used with great success by this country's armies. No method is better suited to viewing quickly the terrain of an unknown, enemy-occupied region.

Seldom is the situation of two opposing armies similar to what it was during the past year near Edward's Ferry, [Maryland], where Steiner was able to make a free flight, moving over the entire enemy position, and through good binoculars could recognize every single man. He finally descended again on his own ground. The disadvantages, though, are that smaller bodies of troops protected by woods can remain undiscovered by the balloon and that a strong wind could endanger the reconnaissance flight. Steiner, however, believes that he has overcome the latter disadvantage by reducing the balloon's capacity until it is has just enough to lift the weight of two persons.

He has given it a very long, thin shape. Furthermore, he has added a strong rudder and in that way the balloon is hindered less by wind and it will reach its destination more smoothly and more surely. Following a recent call, Steiner will return now to the army and make test flights with his newly improved balloon. If those tests bring good results he will go to Europe (Paris first) in two years.”

“The balloon described may have been in process of construction or may have been only a design in Steiner's mind. There is no record of experiments made with it. It was certainly not the Balloon that Steiner used in St. Paul, since this had a capacity of 41,000 cubic feet and a basket large enough to carry four to six people. (See St. Paul Pioneer, August 20, 1863.)”

ZEPPELIN'S next letter was commenced in Chicago on August 23. There, to his great joy, he had found several letters from home. These had been forwarded from New York according to directions he had left with Leopold Bierwirth, the German consul there. His first pages were devoted to answering questions put by his family, and for this reason he returned briefly to some of his army experiences.

I admit that my Negro was riding a service horse during the marches. I had to turn that one in because of the lack of horses. My own mount was limping, so I felt these were reasons enough to leave the army somewhat sooner than I first intended.

Louis, the Negro, is also a good cook. After our regular cook, a former French soldier, sailor, captain in the United States Army, and finally a cook, ran away for fear of an upcoming battle, the Negro was asked: "Louis, can you cook?" — "Oh no. Sir!" — "Can you prepare anything at all?" — "Oh no. Sir!" — "You cannot boil eggs?" "Oh yes, Sir!" — "Can you brew coffee?" — "Oh yes. Sir!" — "Can you make beefsteak?" — "Oh yes. Sir!" — "Can you fry a chicken?" — "Oh yes. Sir!" — That fellow had observed so much in Dr. Schleiden's good kitchen, that we did not rejoice at all when, after several days, our runaway cook, sensing the battle less imminent, suddenly reappeared from behind a bush and took over his chores as if nothing had happened.

The reports we heard in Crow Wing have been confirmed, but they were exaggerated in stating that the outbreak of war was inevitable. We now know that Austria, England, and France, because of Russia's negative answer, will send a mutual note to Petersburg [sic]. Its meaning can be nothing short of an ultimatum. Indeed, Russia cannot and will not retract. With the delays of diplomacy, however, I do not see how war can break out before next spring, as much as they would like it. I repeat, God grant that you may laugh at my politics!

You yourself, though, give proof of how difficult it is to judge things from afar, as in your letter of July 15 you wrote about a peace settlement here, with the help of European influence. In the meantime the picture has changed, but a reconciliation cannot be thought of yet. The only thing which could bring about a quick ending would be an uprising of the blacks, or pos- sibly a war with England, and so on. If no such unforeseen, powerful events should occur, the war could be prolonged without important decisions until November of next year, when a new president and along with him a new era in politics will emerge from the contest between the parties in the North. Either a more determined war strategy will then come, which would give the already weakened South the last blow; or conces- sions will be made to the secessionists. In any case, it will still be a long, long way to a solution of the troubles underlying this war.

Chicago is living evidence of the fast, powerful development of the West. Thirty years ago there was nothing here. Today the city numbers more than 160,000 inhabitants. Railroads and canals cross the bustling streets in all directions. The characteris- tics of a higher level of civilization are more plentiful here than in the other places newly created by commerce. In Chicago churches, theaters, museums, large hotels, and splendid stores are numerous. Only art does not set up its workshop amid the hurrying and pushing; the Yankee's heart has no room for it!

America is definitely a land of contrasts. Everything aristocratic is in opposition to its fundamental ideas, yet nowhere is so much fuss made about a simple traveling count. Everybody rushes to be first to oblige with an invitation. If one is pleased to ac- cept, a large gathering appears in frock coats and low-cut dresses to take a look at this wonderful little monster.

Occasionally a fine little man, clever and knowledgeable, comes along; he asks in roundabout ways, "where to?" and invites you to have a drink; finally he presents his card in friendly remembrance. You cannot but give your own in return, and the next day your name and titles appear in the newspaper followed by the remarks you made. Indeed, I could re- construct from the newspapers my full journey through America as a "distinguished foreigner." I will bring with me several articles. Even if one pays no homage to such humbug, he cannot escape being taken advantage of by it.

In Europe people generally speculate in making a good match; here they speculate in everything but that. The ability to profit from others is considered a vital characteristic. However, my own experience, confirmed by others, leads me to think that nowhere in the world is so much reliance placed on the word of a man in business matters.

New York, September 1. My intention was to hold back this letter one or two days after sending the other one written in St. Paul; ship schedules have delayed it a week. Meanwhile I have passed through beautiful and noteworthy places: Chicago — Cincin-

nati — Harpers Ferry — Baltimore — Philadelphia— New York. After arriving here last night I could find no time before the mail was closed to rush over to Mr. Bierwirth to ask for the longingly awaited letters. Since your letter 13 of July 16, I have had no news from you. As things stand over there, I know, of course, that I will have only a short time more to stay here. I suppose you have not handed in my petition for a furlough? In two days we should know the content of Russia's reply.

Zeppelin remained in the United States more than two months longer. He visited Newport, Rhode Island, though for how long is not knoivn, and he undoubtedly returned to Washington at least once. Through the French ambassador there he received permission to travel aboard the French gunboat "Tisiphone" to Charleston, South Carolina, to observe the military operations connected with the blockade of that port. Embarking on the "Tisiphone" on October 10, he returned aboard the steamer "Arago," reaching New York on October 31. Nineteen days later he boarded the Cunard liner "China" for his return to Europe.

At home again, he found the crisis that had so alarmed him during the summer to have passed. But already the tensions were mounting that less than three years later brought on the Austrian War, and in 1870 the Franco-Prussian War. From these con- flicts a united Germany emerged as a world power.

Zeppelin served with distinction in both wars and continued to pursue his career as a cavalry officer until his retirement with the rank of general in 1891. During these years he had little time for the wide-ranging interests that Schleiden had so keenly noted. At last, however, when nearly sixty, he started the aeronautical experiments that made him a ivorld-famous twentieth-century inventor and a German national hero.


May 23, '21
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