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
In the previous entry, I wrote about the beginnings of the Union Balloon Corps and some of its early operational uses. In this portion, I will expand on the operations undertaken by the Union, the Confederacy’s attempts to start their own balloon unit, and the eventual end of the Balloon Corps.
The balloon that Lowe observed was taken manned by Captain John Randolph Bryan. Bryan’s balloon was not as well-constructed as its Union counterparts, and was a hot-air balloon inflated by burning pine knots in turpentine. First flown on April 13th, 1862, Bryan’s balloon adventures were short-lived, as Lowe did not observe it making flights for more than a few weeks. This attempt was somewhat representative of Confederate efforts to create a dedicated balloon unit of their own; their efforts seem to have been not as focused as was the case with the Union. The Confederates created another balloon known commonly as the “Silk Dress Balloon” (it was believed to have been made of silk dresses, but was not), but was officially named the Gazelle. The balloon, which was not as big as even the smallest Union balloon, was piloted by Lt. Col. Edward Porter Alexander, who used a number of black balls below the gondola to signal ground forces. Unfortunately, due to the patchwork nature of the balloon, it was subject to frequent leaks and did not stay airborne for long. The Confederates, as their Union counterparts, also used a balloon tender, the Teaser, to service the Gazelle. However, in mid-1862, the Teaser was discovered while servicing the Gazelle by the Union gunboat Maratanza. Both small ships opened fire upon each other with cannon, but only the Maratanza scored hits. With their barge damaged, the Confederates attempted to scuttle the ship and the balloon with it, but failed. In the end, the Union vessel captured the entire Confederate balloon operation- balloon, equipment, and barge. The capture of the Gazelle along with its support equipment effectively ended Confederate attempts with balloons.
Meanwhile, Lowe and his men continued to make observations of Confederate troops. Lowe and his balloons were present at many of the battles of the Peninsular Campaign. At the battle of Fair Oaks, Lowe observed Confederate troops moving to attack Union positions in such a way that they had not been discovered by Union ground forces. Lowe passed his information on to McClellan, who sent reinforcements in order to counter the Confederate movement.
Perhaps more valuable than the intelligence provided by the balloonists was the effect that seeing a Union balloon had upon Confederate troops. The Confederates, knowing perfectly well that the balloons’ purpose was to report on their positions, would frequently shoot at the balloons, though virtually none of the shots fired actually hit. In fact, Union troops frequently complained when balloons deployed in their area because the Confederate rounds would miss and land among their units instead. The balloonists would be ordered to move from their position several times because of this. Other observers noted the effects that balloons had upon the Rebel troops. “One correspondent wrote that the appearance of Lowe’s balloon sent the Confederate artillerists into “paroxysms of rage.” Failing to hit it with rifle and shell fire, the thwarted rebels often “cried of it with derision.”” The truth was that the Confederates feared the balloons far more than the Union valued them. General Beauregard ordered the men under his command to douse their lights at night and to use the cover of woods to prevent being spotted from air. The Confederates also took to using what became known as “Quaker guns”- logs disguised as cannons to fool Union balloonists into thinking that Rebel fortified areas were stronger than they actually were. This apparently was effective, since McClellan once used this in his reasoning to delay an attack, later resulting in scandal when the “guns” were discovered by Union infantry. Later, after the Balloon Corps had ceased operations, the Confederates questioned the balloons’ disappearance. Following the war, one former rebel officer wrote,
“I have never understood why the enemy abandoned the use of military balloons in early 1863, after using them extensively up to that time,” said Alexander. “Even if the observers never saw anything they world have been worth all they cost for the annoyance and delays they caused us in trying to keep our movements out of their right.”
Whatever success the Balloon Corps had, it was operating on borrowed time. During its entire lifespan, the Corps was riddled with internal dissent. Lowe and La Mountain were not fond of each other thanks to a rivalry which had carried over from peacetime. The relationship deteriorated to a point where both were trying to destroy the others reputations. The Corps also nearly ceased to exist when Lowe came down with a serious case of malaria during the summer of 1862. Following his recovery, he returned to his duties only to discover his wagons and other equipment and been requisitioned by a quartermaster. After operating at the Battle of Chancellorsville the following year, Lowe was ousted as the commander of the unit, thanks mostly due to a man named Freno who had formerly been a part of the unit but was expelled for his habits of drinking and gambling. Lowe, who had never received pay for his troubles during the two years of operation, tried to submit his resignation, but was denied. He finally left the service in 1864.
The Balloon Corps might not necessarily have had the most substantial impact upon the outcome of the war, but it was a very significant part of the concept of the Civil War as a truly modern war. The ways in which balloons were used in the Civil War foreshadowed the ways in which aircraft would be used not just in World Wars I and II, but in Korea, Vietnam, and modern conflicts today. In this sense, balloons were an important innovation used during the Civil War. Their usage as a means of reconnaissance and artillery spotting are both missions that continue to be used in some form or another in today’s Air Force.
1. 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.
2. Evans, Charles M,. War of the Aeronauts: the History of Ballooning in the Civil War. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2002. Print.
3. Phillips, Gervase. "Was the American Civil War the First Modern War?" History Review 2006. Web. 22 Nov. 2011.
4. "Æ Aeragon - First Modern War." Æ Aeragon - Military Technology Transfer. Web. 08 Dec. 2011. <http://www.aeragon.com/03/>.
5. www.civilwarhome.com 9/15/11
 P. 245 Evans, Charles M,. War of the Aeronauts: the History of Ballooning in the Civil War. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2002. Print
 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.
 P. 197 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.
 P. 113 Evans, Charles M,. War of the Aeronauts: the History of Ballooning in the Civil War. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2002. Print
 Evans, Charles M,. War of the Aeronauts: the History of Ballooning in the Civil War. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2002. Print
 P. 295 Evans, Charles M,. War of the Aeronauts: the History of Ballooning in the Civil War. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2002. Print