Military Ballooning in the American Civil War


During the American Civil War, both the Union and the Confederacy used balloons for observation and reconnaissance, foreshadowing the usage of aircraft in World War I 50 years later.

By Seth Marshall

The American Civil War is frequently viewed as one of the first modern wars. This idea is not necessarily true, since many of the technological innovations that are often thought of having first been used in the Civil War were actually used in earlier conflicts. One example of such technology is the balloon, which was used by the French decades before the Civil War. However, the Civil War was the first time that the balloon was deployed in a formally organized unit. Though this unit was relatively small and it ultimately did not have an enormous impact on the war, it marked a milestone in the history of military aviation.

The first balloon took flight in France in the late 1700s, and was used by the French military as early as the 1790s. Balloons were used by the French in several battles during their Revolutionary Wars, but they were only used individually, and their unit, the French Aerostatic Corps, was not as well organized as the Balloon Corps would emerge in the Civil War. The idea of the balloon as a military asset was primarily a Northern effort, though the South occasionally experimented with literally patchwork balloons. Prior to the Civil War, a number of inventors, scientists, and adventure-seekers were experimenting with balloons in the U.S. One of the more successful of these men was Thaddeus C. Lowe. Lowe had made numerous balloon flights prior to the war, including one attempt to fly across the Atlantic (he did not even come close to achieving his goal, coming down after only a few hours after ascending and never having reached the coast).  While balloons were frequently viewed as a curiosity more than as a practical means of war or transportation before the war, the Civil War allowed for new possibilities. The War Department became interested in the idea of acquiring balloons for military purposes. Lowe was soon involved in discussions with the Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, as well as President Lincoln, who both were intrigued by the idea of a flying unit. In June of 1861, Lowe made several demonstration flights on the lawn of the Smithsonian, proving his capabilities. One of these experimental flights involved the use of a telegraph wire connected to ground, which Lowe used to send a message to the President. This would be the very first air-to-ground electronic transmission of any kind.

                In a continuation of his experiments, Lowe was sent to the front lines with his balloon in order to test the idea of using his aircraft as a means of artillery observation. Lowe ascended to several hundred feet, taking with him a set of field classes and a white flag with which to signal men on the ground. When the rounds fell off their mark, Lowe waved the flag to indicate the artillerymen should adjust their fire. A few attempts, Lowe observed the rounds landing among Confederate positions. The Confederates, realizing that the balloon was the source of their troubles, began shooting the balloon even though it was several miles distant. Lowe quickly ordered the balloon pulled down.

                After his initial successful ascents, Lowe received funding and orders to form the first “Balloon Corps.” While officially titled the Aeronautical Corps, newspapers referred to the curious new unit as the Balloon Corps. [1]The Corps was formed around Lowe’s balloon, The Union, with the addition of four new balloons: Intrepid, Constitution, United States, and Washington. However, Lowe was not assigned a large number of men for his new unit; he began to recruit other balloonists to give his corps an experienced group of personnel. Other balloonists included John Wise, James Allen, and John La Mountain. These men, along with Lowe, were some of the leading balloonists of the time and brought their extensive experience to the Balloon Corps. However, despite being employed by the Union Army, none of the balloonists involved ever received commissions in the army, though they did apply for them numerous times. Lowe, as the commander of the unit, would take to wearing a Union officer’s overcoat sans rank insignia to denote his status as the unit’s leader.

                Under Lowe’s direction, the Corps devised a few inventions to aid them in their deployment of balloons in the field. Because the balloons were to be filled with gas instead of hot air, a means of inflating the balloons had to be devised. Lowe himself designed a portable hydrogen cart that filled the balloons with gas in the field. The other balloonists would also contribute their own ideas to the running of the unit. James Allen was perhaps one of the first people to consider arming aircraft when he suggested placing percussion grenades in case Confederate troops surrounded the balloon while it was in the air, with the hope that the shrapnel from the grenades would sever the tether lines.

                By March of 1862, the Balloon Corps was outfitted with seven “war balloons” of varying sizes, six gas generators, and eight balloonists. Additionally, the Navy departed modified a barge, the George Washington Parke Custis, to be used as a “balloon carrier” by making the structure above the waterline a level deck with only tie-downs. This could perhaps be considered the world’s very first aircraft carrier.[2] In addition, the Balloon Corps had been making many ascents during the winter months, training for operations on campaign. This was well-timed, since General George McClellan was finally ready to begin his offensive, with Lowe and his Corps providing observations on enemy positions and troop movements.  Though the Corps had been making observation flights against Confederate positions prior to the offensive, the Peninsular Campaign would mark a major upturn in the use of balloons.

                As the campaign very slowly moved along the Peninsula, requests for observations against Confederate positions began to increase. Being able to view Confederate positions from several hundred feet, with a grand view of the landscape not blocked by tall-standing trees or hills proved to be very useful. Balloonists would ascend for flights that ranged from ten minutes to an hour, making notes and sketches of what they saw in notepads, then descend and report their findings to army commanders. Balloon flights were generally took the entire day, since it took time to move the balloons into position (the balloonists had to be careful to not tear the balloons on tree branches or other obstacles) and inflate them.

                While the majority of ascents went as planned, problems did arise on several flights. On one occasion, the balloon The Union was blown away by gale force winds, though it was later recovered with only minor damage. On another occasion, General Andrew Porter was taking a ride in one of the balloons alone when the tether line broke. The balloon drifted over Confederate lines, whose troops immediately began shooting at the free-flying balloon. Meanwhile,  Porter took notes on Confederate positions. Eventually, the balloon drifted back over Union lines and landed. Perhaps most interesting was one incident during which Lowe was airborne during the battle at Yorktown. After a short time making his usual observations, Lowe was surprised to see another balloon rise over the Confederate positions. Lowe noted that this balloon was multi-colored and was airborne for some time. This was the first time that aircraft from opposing sides of a war were present over a battlefield.

                Lowe had observed a Confederate balloon, indicating that the South was also interested in the possibilities that balloons offered. However, it would be the better organized and more well-supplied Union Balloon Corps that experienced more success during the Civil War. Despite this, even the Northern unit was destined to be a relatively short-lived experiment. In part two of this article, I will discuss the Confederacy’s venture in aeronautics and the end of the Union Balloon Corps.

[1] P. 89 A History of Ballooning in the Civil War

[2] P. 174 Poleskie, Steve. The Balloonist: the Story of T.S.C. Lowe-- Inventor, Scientist, Magician, and Father of the U.S. Air Force. Savannah, GA: Frederic C. Beil, 2007. Print.

[3] P. 160 Poleskie, Steve. The Balloonist: the Story of T.S.C. Lowe-- Inventor, Scientist, Magician, and Father of the U.S. Air Force. Savannah, GA: Frederic C. Beil, 2007. Print.