Balloons in the American Civil War
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.
Inflation of the balloon Intrepid to
reconnoitre the Battle of Fair Oaks, 1862
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.
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 kilometres) 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).
Thaddeus S. Lowe observing the battle from his
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.
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.
A reconnaissance balloon is launched from the
coal barge George Washington Parke Curtis, during the American
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 kilometres) 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
The Civil War balloon Intrepid
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 kilometres) 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.
Inflation of the balloon Intrepid to
reconnoitre the Battle of Fair Oaks, 1862
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.
The war balloon at General McDowell's
headquarters preparing for a reconnaissance
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-coloured 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
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.