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The Rise and Fall of the Union Balloon Corps

By Jason Emerson
7/27/2017 • Civil War Times Magazine

Great weapon or ‘fanciful contraption’?

DURING THE 1862 SEVEN DAYS’ Battles on Richmond’s doorstep, Union and Confederate soldiers often spotted immense balloons floating high above the encampments and battlefields. They were watching “Professor” Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, head of the Union Balloon Corps, at work. His balloons could ascend to over 1,000 feet multiple times a day, with aeronauts relaying to Union commanders on the ground nearly continual reports of the enemy’s movements. “About two miles and a half from the river, in an open field, there are large bodies of troops,” Lowe telegraphed Major General George B. McClellan as he watched the Battle of Gaines’ Mill unfold beneath him on June 27. “On the field where [Union] General Morell was camped everything is on fire….I should judge the enemy might make an attack on our left at any moment.”

The Balloon Corps was one of the Union’s great weapons early in the war. Confederate commanders and soldiers expended energy avoiding or shooting at the “Eyes in the Sky.” As Lt. Gen. James Longstreet later recalled, “The Federals had been using balloons to examine our positions, and we watched with anxious eyes their beautiful observations as they floated out of range of our guns.” The Rebels in turn would vainly struggle to create their own balloon corps.

At the two-day Battle of Seven Pines (Fair Oaks), Lowe’s observations prevented a Union regiment from being cornered and decimated. For assistance there and elsewhere, McClellan gave credit to “Professor Lowe, the intelligent and enterprising aeronaut,” saying, “I was greatly indebted for the valuable information obtained during his ascensions” in his official reports.

By 1863, however, the Union Balloon Corps was defunct, a development that astounded Confederate commanders. “I have never understood why the enemy abandoned the use of military balloons early in 1863 after using them extensively up to that time,” said Confederate Colonel E.P. Alexander. “Even if the observers never saw anything they would have been worth all they cost for the annoyance and delays they caused us in trying to keep our movements out of their sight.” Why, then, did the fearsome power of aerial observation so suddenly fall out of Union use after numerous successes?

 

DURING THE CIVIL WAR A furious wave of scientific revolution swept the nation. Scientific American magazine had scores of readers interested in cutting-edge innovations, generating suggestions for new civilian and military applications. Thousands of Americans developed contraptions and submitted designs for them to the U.S. Patent Office. These entrepreneurs found a willing ear in Washington, especially since Abraham Lincoln was himself an inventor who achieved a patent in 1849 for a device to buoy vessels over shoals.

Immediately after South Carolina fired on the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, inventors flocked to the White House and the War Department to plead, offer and peddle their ideas to a government at war. “The inventors were more a source of amusement than annoyance,” according to presidential secretary John Hay. “They were usually men of some originality of character, not infrequently carried to eccentricity.” Among the throngs of idealists, inventors, patriots and shysters were aeronauts, who inflated bags of silk with coal or hydrogen gas as a way to ascend into the sky.

Ballooning was new to neither the public nor the military in 1861. The first manned balloons were launched by the French in the late 1700s (one of the first flights was witnessed in 1783 by Benjamin Franklin), and used by the military for observation during the 1790s.

The first American balloonist, John Wise, took to the air in 1835 in Philadelphia. The use of balloons for military reconnaissance was discussed during the Seminole Wars in Florida in the 1830s, as well as the Mexican War in 1846-48, although the concept never came to fruition in either of those conflicts.

Up to the Civil War, balloons varied in size, but they typically held tens of thousands of cubic feet of gas, usually piped from a city coal works. The aeronaut would stand in a basket suspended beneath the balloon, which was tethered to the ground by ropes. By the 1850s balloons had begun free flights (without ground tethers), and some aeronauts made big plans. Wise and three companions, for example, set out on a transatlantic flight in 1859, flying from St. Louis to New York before they crashed.

 

WHERE EARLIER AERONAUTS had failed, a relative newcomer, Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, was confident he could prevail. Lowe constructed an immense balloon capable of holding 726,000 cubic feet of hydrogen, and in a trial flight traveled 650 miles from Cincinnati to a spot near Unionville, S.C. Unfortunately for Lowe, he landed in secessionist territory only one week after the fall of Fort Sumter—with a basket full of Cincinnati newspapers, espousing abolitionist views. Only his reputation as a “professor” of aeronautics saved him from being lynched as a Yankee spy.

As Lowe traveled back to Cincinnati from the South, he became convinced that his ballooning skills could help the Union cause. A friend, Joseph Henry, director of the Smithsonian Institution, helped him secure an audience with President Lincoln to make his case.

Both Wise and another balloonist, James Allen, had already pitched the balloon idea in Washington. But Lowe, with an academic reputation, also had what the others lacked—charisma and showmanship. To introduce the president to his aeronautic idea in June 1861, Lowe had his balloon Enterprise inflated on the grounds outside the Smithsonian’s red castle and towed to Pennsylvania Avenue, directly across from the White House. Lowe ascended to more than 1,000 feet over the city, then wired Lincoln the first telegram ever sent from an aerial observatory: “From this point of observation we command an extent of country nearly fifty miles in diameter. The city, with its girdle of encampments, presents a superb scene,” Lowe wrote.

Lincoln, who witnessed the entire event from a second-floor White House window, was so impressed that he asked Lowe to dinner and invited him to spend the night in the Executive Mansion, where they discussed the possibilities for surveying battlefields and enemy troop positions from balloons and transmitting the information to military commanders on the ground.

 

ALL THIS WAS A PROMISING start, but army commanders in the field soon threw up roadblocks to the use of balloons on the battlefield. Army commander Winfield Scott, for example, evaded Lowe’s overtures about creating an Aeronautical Corps until Lincoln himself intervened. And many other commanders did not readily take to the new technology, convinced that a rider and his horse were better scouts.

To be sure, balloons were neither easy to move nor simple to use. They weighed hundreds of pounds and required numerous pieces of equipment to deploy. They had to be inflated at a city coal works or by using cumbersome portable gas generators. Either way, it took hours to inflate the big balloons, and tethered observation flights required dozens of soldiers to man the ground lines.

In windy conditions, the balloons could become unwieldy or might be damaged or torn, possibly injuring or killing pilots and attendants. What’s more, attempting observations in a wind-tossed balloon was practically useless, since the movement—like a ship in stormy seas—made it nearly impossible for observers to see anything clearly enough through a field glass to pinpoint enemy camps and troop locations.

But once officers gained some practical experience with the “gasbags,” they typically became convinced of the value of aerial observation. Lowe’s corps started out by taking up military mapmakers near Washington, so they could draw landscapes and mark enemy positions and fortifications. In September 1861, Lowe got his first chance to help aim artillery when he ascended above Falls Church, Va., and sent signals to generals to tell them how to adjust their fire.

In the Peninsula Campaign, fought east of Richmond between the York and the James rivers, McClellan relied heavily on the Balloon Corps, especially during the Siege of Yorktown. “A hawk hovering above a chicken yard could not have caused more commotion than did my balloons when they appeared before Yorktown,” Lowe wrote. James Longstreet recalled that Southern troops always felt insecure once “the Federals began to realize all their advantages by flying balloons above our heads.”

The Rebels tried to shoot down the balloonists at every opportunity. “We sent a rifle shell so near old Lowe and his balloon that he came down as fast as gravity would bring him,” Colonel Alexander wrote during one engagement. But the balloons were in danger only during ascent and descent; once they reached a certain height they were out of range. During hundreds, perhaps thousands, of flights during a two-year span, no Union balloons were ever shot down and no aeronauts were killed.

The Confederates tried to build their own balloons, but a lack of money and materials led to utter failure. The first Southern balloon was characterized by its pilot as “Nothing but a big cotton bag, coated over so as to make it airtight.” That balloon, and another made shortly after, were both captured by Federals after brief use.

Despite their overwhelming command of the air, the Union stopped using balloons at the height of their success. A major reason was Lowe’s resignation after the Battle of Chancellorsville, due to his exasperation with many of the commanders with whom he worked. Lowe protested against the egos and red tape he encountered in the field, and they in turn chafed against his stubbornness and arrogance. After Lowe’s resignation, his successors had neither the skill nor the charisma to continue their efforts on the battlefield.

 

PERHAPS MORE IMPORTANT to the quick demise of the Balloon Corps were the reactionary views of military leaders as well as the public. As Charles M. Evans explains in his book War of the Aeronauts, “Even in light of personal prejudices against the idea of civilians and their flying machines meshing with the ranks of a highly compartmentalized army, there was an even more grim reality that needed to be faced. The slaughter of men and the destruction of property were continuing at an alarming rate at the time balloon operations were suspended. The nation, as a whole, had no more time to waste on novel ideas concerning the war effort. The time for experimenting with fanciful contraptions of war was over.”

 

Jason Emerson, an independent historian and journalist, is the author of Lincoln the Inventor and Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln, among other books.

Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.

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