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Civil War Aeronautics

The Montgolfier brothers first harnessed the lifting power of hot air in Annonay, France, on 5 June 1783. The French were the first to employ balloons in their operations at Maubeuge on 2 June 1794. Napoleon took balloons with him to Egypt, but the material was destroyed by the British fleet at Aboukir prior to them being unloaded in 1798.11 The French disbanded their balloon corps in 1802, a ban that was to last for a quarter of a century, as internal friction mounted within their high command as to its proper application.

Hot air balloons came to America in 1784 with an ascent organized by Peter Carnes, a lawyer and tavern owner who privately built his own hot air device. John Wise, the first of the Civil War balloonists, made his initial ascents in 1835. The first aerial photograph was taken by the Frenchman Nadar above Paris in 1858. The United States observed a similar feat in 1860, taken over Boston by William Black. Unlike their European counterparts, the U.S. military failed to capitalize on the benefits of aerial photos.

The Second Seminole War (1835-42) brought with it the proposal to harness the scouting advantages of the balloon in conjunction with cavalry to help drive Indians from the Florida swamp. John Wise suggested the use of balloons as bombers in the Mexican War to destroy the Castle of San Juan de Ulua. Both these ideas were rejected by the War Department.

During the Civil War baloons generated intelligence for the commander that was previously unavailable. The manned balloon extended the battlefield. It effectively raised the commander's eyes above the terrain, thereby permitting him to see beyond obstacles and focus on the disposition of enemy forces around him. With this new source of information, the commander might now exercise his command and control to optimize his positional advantage vis-a-vis the enemy. Security also improved with balloon use. Direct observation along existing avenues of approach greatly reduced the chance of surprise by the enemy during periods of good visibility.

Thaddeus Lowe's introduction of mobile hydrogen gas generators was among his most significant advances to Federal military ballooning. This innovation increased the availability of balloons to the commander at the front where they were needed. Lowe provided the first coordinated indirect fire in American history on 24 September 1861. He employed the telegraph and colored flags to make shot corrections from the balloon car at Fort Corcoran to General W.F. Smith's guns some three miles distant near Chain Bridge, Virginia. the opportunities for future use were limited due to the lead time required to set up balloon and artillery in proximity to the target.

During the summer of 1861 until spring the following year, Lowe provided security to the Army of the Potomac by dispelling rumors of Confederate troop concentrations massing against Washington. Key to the endorsement of balloons in the Union Army lay in convincing the Topographical Engineers of the feasibility of balloon operations and the leadership of its usefulness.

The technical difficulties experienced at the outset of the conflict prevented Federal balloons from getting to the battle of First Manassas. Some of the communications at Fredericksburg were telegraphed or shouted and never recorded. Other communications were simply lost since the balloon corps was not assigned in a regular sense to the chain of command, but rather loosely attached for administrative purposes to various other organizations within the Union army. The balloons were unable to follow the Union army to Antietem for want of wagons.

Plagued by growing pains in the early stages of the war, Union balloon operations eventually blossomed into a valuable tool for the commander despite the limitations imposed by weather and trees. Despite Confederate deception efforts, Lowe's aeronauts routinely provided accurate information to the commander.

The balloon corps of the Army of the Potomac was reorganized by Major General Hooker on 7 April 1863 by his Special Order Number 95. Captain Cyrus B. Comstock, Chief Engineer of the Army of the Potomac, assumed command and administrative authority over the balloonists. Comstock fired Lowe's father from his position as assistant while reducing Lowe's pay from 10 to 6 dollars per day.

Thaddeus S.C. Lowe left the balloon corps on 7 May 1863. His former organization was sent to Washington as the Union army followed Lee north into Maryland. The balloon corps never saw active service again during the Civil War. Unfortunately, the loss of both Lowe and his father at the tight fisted hands of Captain Comstock proved a crippling blow to the organization as it disbanded shortly after their departure.

The Confederate army conducted balloon operations on a much more limited scale. While the Confederates used signal balloons along the Potomac in 1861, the only documentation that substantiated manned flights prior to the Peninsula Campaign was the balloon request from Union Brigadier General W. A. Gorman in the first winter of the war. In his request, Gorman asked for equipment similar to that of the enemy, which was opposite his.

E.P. Alexander, a signal officer by training, was General Beauregard's Chief of Ordnance at Manassas when the northern press began to report balloon sightings. Captain Alexander established the communication network between Confederate outposts and Southern sympathizers in Washington. On 29 August 1861, Alexander had the pleasure of firing his artillery battery at T.S. Lowe as he recalled in a letter to his father, "we sent a rifle shell so near old Lowe and his balloon that he came down as fast as gravity could bring him."" The following spring and after a promotion, Major Alexander brought an observation balloon made of coated cotton to the peninsula.

The Confederates managed to build a silk balloon for the major fighting of the campaign, but it too was lost after only a week of operations. Major Alexander used the 24 foot diameter, "Silk Dress" balloon, constructed by Captain Langdon Cheves, in the Seven Days' fighting on the 27th of June 1862. With the Union army in retreat, the Confederate balloon was towed down the James river on a tug named Teaser. It was captured by Union forces when the boat ran aground on 4 July 1862. Thus, the Confederate offensive employment of balloons came to an end.

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Page last modified: 23-09-2017 12:58:17 ZULU