First US Air Force: The Civil War Balloon Corps

During the Virginia campaign in the summer of 1862, the Union Army used tethered balloons to observe the Confederate troop movements during the battles—the first US air force.

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Valve from Civil War balloon, on display at Tredegar Iron Works Museum

By the time of the Civil War, manned balloons had already been flying for almost 70 years, beginning with the Montgolfier brothers in France. In the 1850s, American adventurer Thaddeus Lowe had been making balloon flights in the US and Europe, and at the outbreak of war, he decided to offer his services as a balloonist to the Union Army. On April 19, 1861, after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Lowe took off from Cincinnati for a flight, intending to land in Washington DC as a way to demonstrate the capabilities of his balloon. Instead, he was blown off-course by a storm and landed in South Carolina, where he was briefly arrested by the Confederates on suspicion of being a spy.

Upon his return to Ohio, Lowe was contacted by the White House, where his flight had attracted the attention of government officials (including the Smithsonian Institution) who were now interested. On June 11, Lowe tethered his balloon Enterprise at the National Mall and ascended to 500 feet. From there, he used a telegraph wire running to the ground to send a message to President Lincoln at the White House: “This point of observation commands an extent of country nearly 50 miles in diameter. The city with its girdle of encampments, presents a superb scene. I have pleasure in sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station, and in acknowledging indebtedness for your encouragement for the opportunity of demonstrating the availability of the science of aeronautics in the military service of the country.”

Meanwhile, another balloonist named John Wise had also interested the Army in his balloon as a platform for reconnaissance and as a way of correcting the aim of artillery. The Army decided to place Wise in charge of the “US Balloon Corps” and to take Lowe and his balloon as one of the pilots.

When General Irvin McDowell took his troops to Manassas to face the Confederates, the Balloon Corps went with him. But when the general ordered a balloon sent aloft to make observations, Wise could not be found, and Lowe was ordered to launch his balloon instead. Wise then arrived at the scene, and an argument broke out over whose balloon should be used. When Wise finally got into the air, however, he was caught in the wind and entangled in a tree, destroying his balloon.

After this fiasco, Wise left, and President Lincoln appointed Lowe as the “Chief Aeronaut” for the Balloon Corps. With government funding, Lowe built a total of seven specially-reinforced balloons and a portable gas generator to produce hydrogen to fill them. In addition, he was given the use of an old river barge, the George Washington Park Custis, which Lowe converted into a sort of aircraft carrier by removing the boat’s superstructure and fitting it with a flat deck from which he could launch his balloons. The whole apparatus was tested on the Potomac River, and by the end of 1861 there was a picket line of three or four balloons stationed along the shores of the Potomac to watch for any Confederate force that might approach Washington DC. In September 1861, Lowe’s balloons successfully directed the fire of a Federal cannon battery onto a Confederate position.

When General George McClellan advanced on Richmond in the Peninsula Campaign in 1862, he took Lowe and his balloons along. Although bad weather prevented any flights for the first few weeks, Lowe was able to launch tethered balloons from the deck of the George Washington Park Custis during the siege at Yorktown in April, then moved to the James River to keep a lookout for Confederate gunships.

At the end of May, as McClellan reached Richmond, Lowe’s balloons were moved to Gaines Mill and Mechanicsville. From here, observers were able to direct cannon fire onto Confederate positions, and, with a view all the way into Richmond seven miles away, could also report the concentration of troops that would result in the Battle of Seven Pines.

By this time, the Confederates had a balloon of their own, hastily sewn together from local women’s silk dresses. As the Battle of Seven Pines raged, the Union balloon Intrepid and the Confederate balloon Gazelle both watched from above.

Throughout the Seven Days’ Battles, Lowe’s balloons kept up a near-constant surveillance. During the Battle of Gaines Mill the Confederates advanced towards the Federal balloon station, and in his haste to abandon the position Lowe left behind a gas generator and other equipment that was captured by the Southerners and placed on display in Richmond. For the next few days, during the fighting at Savage Station and Malvern Hill, Lowe was retreating along with the Federal Army and was unable to make any flights. The Confederate balloon Gazelle, meanwhile, was making daily ascents from the deck of the tugboat Teaser on the nearby river, providing valuable information to General Robert E Lee until Union gunboats (including the USS Monitor) captured the boat and the balloon.

The Confederates were only able to build one subsequent balloon, which was quickly captured when it accidentally broke away and floated onto Union lines. Although the Federal balloons made over 3,000 ascents during the fighting in Virginia in 1862 and 1863, it was apparent that few in the Army fully appreciated their usefulness. Although McClellan valued the intelligence information that he got, and Union Generals John Sedgwick, Joseph Hooker, and George Custer would all make ascents in Union balloons, Lowe and all his pilots were civilians, and tended to be looked down upon by Union military officers as mere showmen and adventurers. The balloons were also often limited by weather and logistics, and were expensive to operate. (Lowe was not at Antietam because he was not provided with transportation to get there.)

During the retreat of the Federal Army back to Washington DC after the defeats at Fredericksburg and  Chancellorsville, Lowe came down with malaria, then became involved in a dispute with the Army over his pay. He resigned in a huff and after a short time, in August 1863, the Balloon Corps was disbanded.

Today, the Tredegar Iron Works Museum, part of the Richmond National Battlefield Park, displays a valve from the equipment used to inflate the Federal observation balloons, and interprets their role in the fighting around Richmond.

 

 

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9 thoughts on “First US Air Force: The Civil War Balloon Corps”

  1. Custer was not a general when he was assigned to balloon ascents. He was a lieutenant. And was trained to make topological sketches which the civilians had trouble with.

  2. You are correct, but it is customary to refer to military officers by the highest rank they have obtained (even though Custer’s rank of General was a brevet promotion, and he was actually a Lt Col when he was later killed).

  3. I know. It the way it was worded made it sound as If he was a General when he as ended. He was just a handy Lt. Who could be spared when civilians did not work out. He wrote of his balloon adventures. Amusing and charming.

      1. Just like first-year high school chemistry. :>)

        How common was hydrogen (versus hot air) for balloon use at the time? Is that also what the Confederate balloons used?

          1. I had no idea, until checking Wiki just now, that the sort of burner-equipped hot air balloon prevalent today didn’t become come along until the 1950’s.

            Blame Hollywood. :>)

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