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1. The Aeronaut
On August 17, 1863, America was engulfed in civil war. The battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg had been fought just six weeks earlier, but Mr. Belote, the manager of the International Hotel, the finest in the city of Saint Paul, Minnesota, didn’t care about the Blue and the Gray. That night, he was more concerned about the brown—the brown mud, that is—being tracked into his establishment by the hollow-cheeked, rough-whiskered frontiersman claiming to be a “Graf von Zeppelin.”
He certainly didn’t look like one of the fancy European aristocrats Mr. Belote had read about. Yet he sounded courtly, even if he spoke English, haltingly, with a strong German accent. Upon closer inspection, his clothes, too, were tailored, though torn and ragged and not altogether suited to the backwoods; he was evidently a man who purchased rather than shot what he wore. Still, at the International Hotel, they didn’t let rooms to riff-raff or charlatans.
The man, sensing the manager’s reluctance, explained that he had spent the last three weeks roaming the wilderness. Fueled by the romantic fantasies of deerslayers exploring primeval American forests he had picked up from reading too many James Fenimore Cooper novels, he had elected to travel along an abandoned fur-trade trail. It was a wonder he hadn’t died. Having quickly run out of food and ammunition and beset by mosquitoes and heat, he had been saved by some Chippewa Indians who showed him how to hunt ducks, build a shelter, and gather eggs.
It had been quite an adventure, but he was ready for a comfortable bed, a bath, and a hearty dinner—and had the money at hand. Once he saw the dollars, Mr. Belote relented: He’d be only too pleased to offer such a distinguished gentleman his best accommodations. Due to return east on the next day’s train, the man paid for a single night’s stay.
The following morning, August 18, woken by a commotion outside, Zeppelin drew the curtains and surveyed the open lot across the street. And there he spied a large silken balloon, gaily painted and patchworked, and fitted with a small wicker basket. He’d heard of these legendary, magical things, of course—everyone knew of them—but never had he encountered one.
Right there and then, Zeppelin decided to postpone his trip back home.
Zeppelin was indeed a fancy European aristocrat and not a charlatan, but how he ended up in Saint Paul, Minnesota, is something of a roundabout story.
He could trace his ancestry back to a minor thirteenth-century baron named Heynrikus de Zepelin from Mecklenburg in northern Germany whose kinsmen served as mercenaries in the Swedish, Danish, and Prussian armies that occupied their time ravaging and ravishing their way across Europe. For the next five hundred years, successive Zepelins did little other than demonstrate a prodigious talent for drunkenly gambling away the family’s estates, ultimately obliging an impecunious, teenaged Ferdinand Ludwig to roam far south and enter the military service of Duke Frederick of Württemberg in the late eighteenth century.
When all-conquering Napoleon upgraded the duchy of Württemberg into a kingdom in 1806, Ferdinand was promoted to count and changed his name to “Zeppelin” (the Württembergers preferred a double p). In 1834, his son Friedrich did very well, marrying Amélie Macaire d’Hogguer, the daughter of a wealthy Franco-Swiss cotton manufacturer, and Ferdinand—our count—came along four years later.
He was born into a world of international nobility, where a title served as passport to the elites in Saint Petersburg, Vienna, London, and Paris—or even, in a pinch, Berlin, a backwater. Following the family’s martial tradition, Zeppelin entered the Royal Army College at Ludwigsburg in October 1855 and emerged as a lieutenant with one of Württemberg’s most swagger regiments, the 8th, based in Stuttgart, the kingdom’s capital, in September 1858. During the Franco-Austrian War of 1859 (Württemberg was an Austrian ally), he saw no action while serving on the staff of the quartermaster-general as a specialist in topography and logistics.
That Zeppelin, a curious mix of the unconventional and the traditional, was even in the quartermaster-general’s office rather than serving on the higher-status front lines marked him as quirky. Since boyhood, Zeppelin had been fascinated by mechanics, by making machinery work, by practical invention. Before being admitted to the Royal Army College, Zeppelin had attended the prestigious polytechnic school in Stuttgart. Such institutions were in the vanguard of imparting a technical, scientific, and engineering education to smart middle-class boys and ambitious working-class lads. Rich young nobles like Zeppelin were few and far between. Still stranger, during his time with the quartermaster-general, Zeppelin took temporary leave to enroll at the University of Tübingen to study (though he did not take a degree) mechanical sciences—again, a field rather déclassé for a man of his pedigree.
It was a fashion of the era for young officers to tour the armies of foreign nations and report on their armaments and tactics; for those of Zeppelin’s breeding, of course, these semi-official visits also allowed them to forge connections with their upper-class counterparts. In 1861–62, the young count visited Vienna, where he was introduced to the Habsburg emperor Franz Joseph I and watched army exercises. Then he was off to Trieste, to visit the fleet, and then the well-known fleshpots of Genoa, Marseille, and Paris, to visit the girls (as he explained to his morally upright, purse-strings-holding father, “In order to know the different people better, I have had to devote some of my time to women”). At Compiègne in northern France he was a guest of Emperor Napoleon III, whose mother had, small world, once been the Zeppelins’ neighbor. Later he traveled to Belgium and Denmark before going to England, where he hobnobbed at the Army and Navy Club and the Athenaeum before being invited to watch the Grenadier Guards go through their paces.
America, then enduring its Civil War, beckoned. How could one miss the clash of those gargantuan armies clanking through the Virginia hinterland? Needing permission from his king for yet another furlough, Zeppelin explained that “the Americans are especially inventive in the adaptation of technical developments for military purposes” and pledged to seek information useful for the Württemberg army.
That was pro forma, of course. His real hope, as he confided to his sister, was that, as he had missed all the fun during the Franco-Austrian War, combat “might be revealed to me in its bloody truth and that the phantom [of experiencing real fighting], before which I had hitherto quailed, might become a living reality.”
To his father, who was unenthusiastic about the idea, he laid out a rather more elevated motive. He wished to discover the extraordinary vibrancy of American democracy, he said, but Zeppelin senior nevertheless forbade him, saying that the existence of slavery and the fact that commoners could vote—he was unclear as to which was worse—“exclude[d] them from playing a worthy part in civilization.” His son persisted, and in the end the paterfamilias gave way, as Zeppelin knew he would. In April 1863, Zeppelin boarded the Cunard ship Australasia for the long voyage to America.
After docking in New York on May 6, Zeppelin traveled to Washington, D.C., checking into the posh Willard Hotel near the White House. His title, as usual, opened doors—even in the great republic. (Zeppelin noticed that “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.”) The Prussian ambassador, Baron von Gerolt, introduced him to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, who in turn arranged an audience with President Abraham Lincoln, who took time out of a busy day running a war to meet with an obscure junior officer from a small faraway kingdom.
Lincoln was unlike anyone else Zeppelin had ever met in his limited social circle. When the count turned up, dressed to the nines in the traditional frock coat and top hat, he was surprised by the president’s utter absence of pretense. When Zeppelin entered the room, “a very tall spare figure with a large head and long untidy hair and beard, exceptionally prominent cheek-bones, but wise and kindly eyes” rose like a specter from behind the desk. When Zeppelin asked for a pass allowing him to travel freely among the Northern armies as an observer, pompously adding that his military credentials included being descended from half a millennium’s worth of knights and counts, Lincoln, a commoner born penniless and landless, remarked that he certainly wouldn’t hold that against him. A puzzled Zeppelin got his pass.