Visions Of Civil War Flying Machines Drive Story at Petersburg National Battlefield

John Neely, an actor playing Civil War inventor R.O. Davidson, believes the scientist was slightly ahead of his time in envisioning a flying machine. During film production for a docu-drama on the story, re-enactors portrayed Union troops on the lines at Petersburg. Kurt Repanshek photos.

For months, beginning in mid-1864 and continuing on into the following Spring, Union troops tried again and again and again to throttle the Confederacy once and for all and end America's Civil War.

From lines established near Petersburg, Virginia, and with supplies assured via a massive depot near today's Hopewell, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant embarked on a nearly 10-month siege on Petersburg with the end goal of breaking through to Richmond, the Confederate capital. It was a demoralizing time for the Confederate troops, who by February 1865 were outnumbered nearly 2-1.

If nothing else, Roderick Davidson stirred the hopes of at least some of the Confederate troops defending Richmond with his Artis Avis, a flying machine he believed could save the South.

"I was very anxious to see that man stampede the Yankee army," noted one soldier after Mr. Davidson roamed the Rebel lines at Petersburg seeking donations to enable his "bird" to take flight.

Another soldier recalled, according to a passage from In The Trenches of Petersburg, "the intense excitement and joyous hopes pervading the army that the flying bird would exterminate every Yankee in front of Petersburg."

The bird never did fly, but not for lack of Mr. Davidson's doggedness.

According to the Southern Historical Society Papers placed on-line in the Perseus Digital Library at Tufts University, as early as 1861 he approached the Southern states' "Provisional Congress" with a request for funding so he might bring his flying machine, carrying 50-pound bombs, off the drawing board and into the skies over Union lines.

He later made a similar request to a member of the House of Representatives in the Confederate States Congress, and appealed to Gens. Robert E. Lee and Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard and the Confederate War Department.

Meeting with no positive response, Mr. Davidson reached out to all Southerners in January 1863 with a request that they contribute to his invention.

By the use of a considerable number of these machines, all of the Yankee armies now upon our soil and their blockading fleets may be speedily driven off or destroyed.

In the present condition of our country, it will take a large sum to construct the requisite number of Birds of Art for this object; but if this appeal should be responded to generally, none need contribute more than one dollar--a sum that every one may spare without inconvenience — in order to rid our country of the privations and perils of this fiendish war. Each machine will cost about five hundred dollars.

As envisioned by Mr. Davidson, the Artis Avis, or "Bird of Art," would be a wood and wire-hoop contraption bearing some semblance to a bird. It would be powered by a one-horsepower engine and be flown by one man.
The engine was to be in the body of the bird and to furnish power for keeping the wings in motion.

A small door at the shoulder was opened or closed to control the direction of the Bird of Art. A door under the throat was opened when it was desirable to descend and a door on top of the neck when the operator wished to go higher.

There was machinery by which the tail could be spread out or closed.

In the body of the bird there was room for a number of shells, and the operator, by touching a spring with his foot, could drop them upon the enemy from a safe distance.


Mr. Davidson proposed that these flying machines would be stationed within five miles of Union lines. From there they would attack, singularly or in groups of two or three, "dropping those destructive missiles from a point or elevation beyond the reach of the enemy's guns, then returning to the place of departure and reloading, and thus continuing the movement at the rate of one hundred miles per hour."

"It will be seen that within the period of twelve hours, one hundred and fifty thousand death-dealing bombs could be thus rained down upon the foe, a force that no defensive art on land, however solid, could withstand even for a single day, while exposed armies and ships would be almost instantly destroyed, without the least chance for escape."

An overlooked backstory to the Civil War, the Artis Avis could be coming your way later this year in a televised docu-drama. During a visit to Petersburg National Battlefield in late June I came upon a film crew taping re-enactments of both troops and Mr. Davidson appealing to them.

"I would characterize him as an eccentric scientist," John Neely, an actor from Bessemer, Alabama, playing Mr. Davidson, said during a break in the shoot. "When you're desperate, you seek out any means. The Hunley (a Confederate submarine) was an example of that. It's not too far-fetched to me that he could have produced a machine that flew."

Mr. Davidson managed to convince some Rebels at Petersburg of that possibility. According to Earl Hess, who wrote In the Trenches of Petersburg, at least $800 was given to the inventor from Confederate soldiers. "The support for Artis Avis among Lee's men was purely emotional, based not on faith in technology but on a desperate longing for the war to end," writes Mr. Hess.

From Mr. Neely's viewpoint, the inventor was convinced he could take his bird into the skies.

"I see him in his later years as a purist, a pure scientist, studying something that has become commonplace in everyday life," the actor said.

Mark Ragan, a research historian who is consulting on the project, came across Mr. Davidson while doing research in the National Archives.

“He actually dates back to about the late 1840s. He had designed a flying machine, basically a flapping bird wing type of thing," Mr. Ragan said. "He pops up a few times in the next 20 years in Scientific American and a couple other journals.”

Documents uncovered by Mr. Ragan in the archives show that Mr. Davidson had presented the Confederate War Department with sketches of his invention. Failing to find support, the inventor turned to the troops.

“He took his arguments into the trenches at Petersburg," said the historian, adding that the army's commanders must have seen some possibilities in the flying machine because they allowed him to approach the troops.

While Mr. Davidson built a full-scale model of his flying machine in Richmond, near the corner of 7th and Main, a windstorm destroyed it. After that, the inventor seems to have vanished himself.

“He’s one of these guys, he just seems like he's a kind of enigma," said Mr. Ragan. "He shows up in history and then he just kind of fades away. He doesn’t show up after the Civil War.”

Ironically, about the same time Mr. Davidson was pursuing his dream, Union engineers were tasked with building their own flying machine for the war. Col. Edward Serrell in 1863 proposed a machine somewhat similar to a helicopter, but the Union Engineer Department was not interested, according to Mr. Hess' book.

While Major General Benjamin Butler later supported the cause, the author notes, Col. Serrell never succeeded in producing his own bird.

Comments

Fascinating! Thanks to everyone for sharing this. Will the documentary be shown on PBS?

Wonder if he was familiar with Leonardo Da Vinci's designs for flying machines?