Up, Up, and Away! : The Balloon Corps during the Civil War

Before an official Air Corps was designed by the United States Army, the Union Army came up with the idea of ​​using air balloons in the American Civil War. Although they did not fully utilize the capabilities of the airspace in terms of gaining an advantage over enemies, they did manage to use balloons as a primitive means of forward observers and reconnaissance. The birth (and death) of the Balloon Corps would be the basis for what would soon become the Air Force as we know it.

Chief Aeronaut

The idea of ​​using balloons in the American Civil War came from highly educated and respected scientist and inventor Thaddeus Lowe. Before war broke out in 1861, he used his time to prepare for a transatlantic balloon crossing. When the Civil War broke out, Lowe thought these balloons could be used on the battlefield. He shared the idea and US President Abraham Lincoln saw the potential of balloons and gave it the green light.

This was not the first time that balloons were used for military purposes, however, as the French also used them during the French Revolutionary Wars in 1792.

At that time, a formal Air Corps was still about 50 years away, and the US government hadn’t done anything like it yet, so they decided it would be best to combine all related activities into a specific unit headed by someone. one who had vast knowledge and a lot of experience in the field. This, of course, was Lowe.

With Lowe’s well-respected reputation, he was designated by the government as “Chief Aeronaut.” He was invited to Washington DC to demonstrate the use of the balloon to President Lincoln. Lowe boarded his balloon and soared about 5,000 feet above. With his telegraph, he began to describe his views to the president below. Lincoln was impressed and decided that Lowe led the Balloon Corps as chief balloonist.

Ballon Corps went to war

Before 1962, the Union Balloon Corps was already in place and everything was ready.

The Balloon Corps saw little action during the war, but they were great for providing an exceptional vantage point, especially for observing enemy activity. The commanding general was the one who decided on the use of the balloons, and most of them did not really see the importance of these air balloons.

Civil War Glass NegativesPublic Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)” width=”608″ height=”599″ srcset=”https://i0.wp.com/cms.sofrep.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/608px- Fair_Oaks_Va._Prof._Thaddeus_S._Lowe_observing_the_battle_from_his_balloon_Intrepid_LOC_cwpb.01561.jpg?w=608&ssl=1608w, https://i0.wp.com/cms.sofrep.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/608px-Fair.Va_Oaks_Prof ._Thaddeus_S._Lowe_observing_the_battle_from_his_balloon_Intrepid_LOC_cwpb.01561.jpg?resize=300%2C296&ssl=1,300w” sizes=”(max-width: 608px) 100vw, 608px” data-recalc-dims=”1″/>
Fair Oaks, Va. Professor Thaddeus S. Lowe observing the battle from his “Intrepid” balloon (Civil War Glass Negativespublic domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In total, the Union Balloon Corps had seven different balloons that they operated. The bigger ones, like the Dauntless and the Union, could carry up to five people. It could hold around 32,000 cubic feet of lifting gas provided by hydrogen generators, the downside being that it took quite a long time to inflate and take flight. Hydrogen is also highly flammable and the telegraph used electricity to operate. Guys riding in those balloons was taking a hell of a risk

In contrast, the smallest can carry one person but can be prepared in a short time.

The observer in the balloon, during a battle, could see the whole battlefield and report the necessary information to the army below by telegraph. In 1861, Lowe made effective use of the balloon when he piloted one near Washington D.C. to direct artillery fire at an enemy position. He used flags to signal and direct the adjustment to the artillery that shells were soon landing accurately on enemy positions.

General Fitz John Porter had a rather different experience. He was also on the side of the Union who also realized the value of balloons in winning the war. He joined Lowe to experience the recognition platform. Now, it’s important to note that these balloons were always tethered to the ground using a tether rope to keep them from drifting. Once, Porter decided to use a single tether to speed his way instead of the usual three or four, as Lowe suggested. This resulted in that single rope breaking and its balloon drifting towards the Confederate lines below. The Confederate soldiers fired a few shots but luckily for Porter his balloon drifted towards the Union position.

carried away by the wind

The balloon and body journey began to run out of steam when Lowe caught malaria in mid-1862. Upon his return after rest and recovery, he found that all his equipment and resources for operating the balloons had were returned to the army.

Fair Oaks, Virginia.  Professor Thaddeus S. Lowe replenishing the INTREPID balloon from the balloon CONSTITUTION.
Fair Oaks, Virginia. Professor Thaddeus S. Lowe replenishing the INTREPID balloon from the balloon CONSTITUTION. (Civil War Glass Negativespublic domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Due to some pay disputes and ultimately not becoming the Union Army’s favorite scientist, Lowe decided to resign and leave the Balloon Corps in May 1863. The Balloon Corps was still in place at this time and control was transferred to the Allen brothers instead. The brothers, however, were not able to lead the units as well as Lowe, so before the end of that year the Balloon Corps was already gone with the wind.

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