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Posted on May 12, 2004 in War College

Balloons in the American Civil War

Editorial Staff

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.

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Thaddeus S.C. Lowe was an American aeronaut who attempted to cross the Atlantic and also introduced the use of balloons into the Civil War.  Lowe, born in 1832, was one of the early balloon enthusiasts who performed at fairs around the United States. His enthusiasm extended to his desire to cross the Atlantic by balloon, and he was able to obtain funds to construct several large balloons that were to be used for that purpose. However, none of his efforts met with success and, although he traveled many miles, the farthest east that he managed to reach was the New Jersey shoreline.

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 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).


The Civil War balloon Intrepid.

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4 Comments

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