Both the Union and Confederate armies used balloons for reconnaissance during the American Civil War, marking the first time that balloons were used in the United States for reconnaissance. The professional aeronaut John Wise was the first to receive orders to build a balloon for the Union army. However, the balloon never was used because it escaped its tethers and was shot down to prevent it from falling into Confederate hands.
Thaddeus Lowe and John LaMountain both carried out reconnaissance activities for the Union army during the war. Lowe had foreseen the usefulness of balloon observations when he had accidentally landed in South Carolina on a flight from Cincinnati, Ohio, to the Atlantic Ocean in April 1861. One of his financial supporters, Murat Halstead, editor of the Cincinnati Daily Commercial, wrote to U.S. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase and suggested that the United States establish a balloon corps under Lowe’s command. This corps would provide aerial reconnaissance for the Union armies.
Secretary Chase arranged a meeting between Lowe and President Abraham Lincoln for June 11, 1861. On July 17, 1861, Lowe demonstrated his ideas for balloon reconnaissance and also for sending telegrams from the balloon to the commanders below. He used the Enterprise, attached to tethers and floating 500 feet (152 meters) above Washington, D.C. President Lincoln was duly impressed. Later that summer, President Lincoln established the Balloon Corps, a civilian organization under the authority of the Union’s Bureau of Topographical Engineers, and granted Lowe permission to requisition equipment and personnel.
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Lowe received funds to build a balloon on August 2, 1861. The first U.S. balloon designed for military use, the Union, was ready for action on August 28. Because he was forced to inflate the balloon with gas from municipal lines in Washington, D.C (he had not received his funds yet for a portable gas generator), the balloon could not be moved far, which limited operations to the Washington, DC, area.
On September 24, 1861, Lowe ascended to more than 1,000 feet (305 meters) near Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, and began telegraphing intelligence on the Confederate troops located at Falls Church, Virginia, more than three miles (4.8 kilometers) away. Union guns were aimed and fired accurately at the Confederate troops without actually being able to see them—a first in the history of warfare.
This triumph led the Secretary of War Simon Cameron to direct Lowe to build four additional balloons. Two more followed shortly. The fleet now consisted of the Intrepid, Constitution, United States, Washington, Eagle, Excelsior, and the original Union. The balloons ranged in size from 32,000 cubic feet (906 cubic meters) down to 15,000 cubic feet (425 cubic meters).
Each had enough cable to climb 5,000 feet (1524 meters).
At the same time, fellow aeronaut John LaMountain was also attempting to provide balloon services for the Union. He wrote to Secretary Cameron in 1861, but, because he had no influential backers, LaMountain did not receive a reply. However, the commander of the Union Forces at Fort Monroe, Major General Benjamin F. Butler, contacted him and asked for a demonstration. Using the Atlantic, which he had used to attempt to reach the Atlantic Ocean earlier, he made two successful ascents at Fort Monroe in July 1861. The New York Times reported that LaMountain could view the Confederate encampments beyond Newmarket Bridge, Virginia, and also at the James River north of Newport News. LaMountain had actually made the first aerial reconnaissance of the Civil War and also was the first to gather intelligence by free balloon flight rather than from a tethered balloon.
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LaMountain, however, did not have the Union Army behind him, and he had difficulty obtaining equipment. He managed to obtain another balloon, the Saratoga. That balloon, however, was lost on November 16, 1861. He tried to get some of Lowe’s equipment, but Lowe refused to cooperate. Each man found supporters, and the rivalry between the two grew. Finally, after accusations and hostilities on both sides, on February 19, 1862, General McClellan dismissed LaMountain from any further service to the military.
Lowe continued providing tactical reports to the Union troops. He provided information during the siege of Yorktown, Virginia, and in late April 1863, at Fredericksburg, he transmitted hourly reports on Confederate movements. During the battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia, Lowe continually transmitted information on enemy troop positions. Observations made during this battle proved to be crucial to the Union victory.
The presence of the balloons forced the Confederates to conceal their forces. To avoid detection, they blacked out their camps after dark and also created dummy encampments and gun emplacements, all of which took valuable time and personnel.
However, the balloon corps did not last until the end of the war. General George McClellan was relieved of his command in 1863, and Captain Cyrus Comstock, who was assigned to oversee the balloon corps, cut its funding and thus its effectiveness. Lowe was also accused of financial impropriety, and his pay was reduced. Lowe resigned from the balloon corps on May 8, 1863. By August 1863, the corps had disbanded.
As well as aerial reconnaissance and telegraphy, Lowe and LaMountain also introduced the use of aircraft carriers. Lowe directed the construction in 1861 of the first aircraft carrier, George Washington Parke Custis, a rebuilt coal barge with a flight deck superstructure. On one occasion, she towed one of Lowe’s balloons for 13 miles (21 kilometers) at an altitude of 1,000 feet (305 meters) while Lowe made continuous observations. On August 3, 1861, LaMountain used the deck of the small vessel Fanny to launch an observation balloon 2,000 feet (610 meters) over the James River. He used the Union tugboat Adriatic for the same purpose. Word of the Americans’ achievements even reached Europe, where the Prussian army sent Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin to learn what he could from this kind of warfare.
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Some authorities claim that, although balloon observations contributed to battle victories, the Union Army’s commanding generals did not use the balloon observations advantageously. Vague reports on Robert E. Lee’s movements issued from the hydrogen balloon Intrepid during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign apparently served only to panic General McClellan. The general withdrew his vastly superior forces and positioned them seven miles (11 kilometers) from Richmond, Virginia, rather than attacking the sparsely defended Confederate capital and ending the war three years and tens of thousands of lives sooner. After McClellan was relieved of his command, Ulysses S. Grant took over and reorganized the Army of the Potomac. Preferring to rely more on attrition than on intelligence, he disbanded the Balloon Corps.
The Confederate Army also formed a smaller version of the balloon corps. In the spring of 1862, Captain John Randolph Bryan offered to oversee the building and deployment of an observation balloon. This balloon consisted of a cotton envelope coated with varnish. Unlike the hydrogen-filled Union balloons, it was a Montgolfiére—filled with hot air—because the Confederacy did not have the equipment for generating hydrogen in the field.
Bryan launched the balloon on April 13, 1862, over Yorktown, Virginia. Even though the balloon was rotating on its single tether while aloft, Bryan managed to sketch a map of Union positions. On his next flight, Bryan ended up in free flight after the tether was cut to free an entangled ground crew member. He was fired upon by Confederate troops below who thought he was the enemy, but managed to escape and land safely.
The second Confederate balloon was constructed of multi-colored silk, which gave rise to the legend that this Confederate balloon was made from silk dresses donated by the ladies of the Confederacy. Although the “Silk Dress Balloon” was constructed from dress silk, no actual dresses were sacrificed. This balloon was gas-filled in Richmond, Virginia, and carried to the field by tethering it to a locomotive. In 1862, when the battle area moved too far from the railroad, it was attached to a tugboat and carried down the James River where the tug, unfortunately, ran aground and was captured.
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Another “Silk Dress Balloon” was constructed and went into service at Richmond in the fall of 1862. It provided aerial observations from its post until the summer of 1863 when it escaped in a high wind and was captured by Union troops.
Hoehling, Mary Duprey. Thaddeus Lowe, America’s One-Man Air Corps. N.Y.: Messner, 1958.
Rolt, L.T.C. The Aeronauts: A History of Ballooning – 1783-1903. N.Y.: Walker and Company, 1966.
Evans, Charles M. “Air War Over Virginia.” //thehistorynet.com/CivilWarTimes/articles/1096_text.htm.