Civil War Aeronautics

by Jason R Lee

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Summary: This article discusses the birth of American military aeronautics by focusing on the use of observation balloons during the Civil War.

To find the beginning of American military aeronautics it is necessary to turn back time more than four decades prior to the Wright brothers' world-changing invention; to the Civil War. As J. Duane Squires explains, “it was in this great conflict of the nineteenth century that so many of the 'modern' characteristics of warfare had their origin.”1 During the Civil War the first American aeronautics corps was developed, utilizing balloons to gain important information about the opposition. The use of these balloons during the Civil War directly changed the course of world history. It helped foster what Joseph Corn calls the “winged gospel”; America's love affair with aviation.2 Civil War aeronautics also changed the way in which all future wars would be fought, creating perhaps the most strategic element of modern warfare.

The first balloon was invented by the Montgolfier brothers in France. They observed the properties of heated air and designed a lightweight bag to catch the hot air. Their efforts led to the first ballooning demonstration in September of 1783 in front of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at Versailles.3 The transition of the balloon as a practical military tool happened very rapidly. By 1789, the French army had already integrated the balloon into their military planning. The French military balloonists were known as “Aerostiers”, and were led by Captain J. M. Coutelle. The Aerostiers' first use was during the battle of Fleurus in 1794.4 The first military balloon was a success and provided critical information about troop movements, contributing to the French victory.

As in Europe, enthusiasm and interest in ballooning would become extremely high in the United States. The first ascension in the United States occurred on January 9, 1793 and was witnessed by America's most important and influential people, including George Washington.5 Unlike France, however, ballooning in the United States did not make such a quick transition into a military tool. Instead, it was utilized for recreation and balloon ascents which became major spectator events. Huge crowds would gather to watch the amazing flying balloons. By the eve of the Civil War, approximately 3,000 ascents had been made in the United States, and about 8,000 Americans had risen into the air.6

In the years leading up to the war, there were numerous aeronauts who were working to solve the quest for safe air travel. By this time, hydrogen gas was being used for lifting the balloons instead of hot air. This was because hot air balloons required the aeronaut to keep a fire burning. Straw was often used to fuel the fire because of its light weight. Predictably, burning pieces of straw would often float upwards, catching the balloon on fire. Hydrogen, on the other hand, would keep a balloon airborne for longer and was safer than the hot air balloons of the day.7 The ultimate goal to which these balloonists were striving was to design and build a balloon capable of navigating across the Atlantic Ocean. Scientists, namely Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, had observed that the upper clouds always seemed to move east, no matter what direction the wind was blowing along the surface of the earth.8 The goal of a transatlantic flight was viewed by many as a very real possibility, as evident in the following statement written by Professor Henry, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, regarding T. S. C. Lowe's planned attempt at an Atlantic crossing:

“It has been fully established by continuous observations collected at this Institution for ten years, from every part of the United States, that, as a general rule, all the meteorological phenomena advance from west to east, and that the higher clouds always move eastwardly. We are, therefore, from abundant observation, as well as from theoretical considerations, enabled to state with confidence that on a given day, whatever may be the direction of the wind at the surface of the earth, a balloon elevated sufficiently high would be carried easterly by the prevailing current in the upper or rather middle region of the atmosphere.”

“I do not hesitate, therefore, to say that, provided a balloon can be constructed of sufficient size and of sufficient impermeability to gas, in order that it may maintain a high elevation for a sufficient length of time, it would be wafted across the Atlantic. I would not, however, advise that the first experiment of this character be made across the ocean, but that the feasibility of the project should be thoroughly tested and experience accumulated by voyages over the interior of our continent.”9

When war broke out many of the leading aeronauts in America saw the opportunity to utilize the balloons for military observation, and thus abandoned the quest for a transatlantic balloon crossing. The first balloonist that tried to bring the balloon to the battlefield was James Allen. He accompanied Colonel Burnside's 1st Rhode Island regiment to Washington, but ran into some bad luck as both of his balloons were damaged beyond repair during accidents just prior to the First Manassas.10

Around the same time, John Wise of Pennsylvania was also vying for support from the government for adapting his balloon to military use. He was contracted by the War department to build a balloon specially designed for the military. Wise, however, lost the faith of the government when he failed to deliver his completed balloon prior to the First Manassas.11

Professor T. S. C. Lowe was the main aeronaut who was competing with Wise for the government contract in Washington at that time. Prior to the war, Lowe had dedicated nearly ten years to ballooning and had been on the verge of attempting a transatlantic flight. On April 20, 1861, only 8 days after the Confederates opened fire on Ft. Sumter, Lowe made a historic flight from Cincinnati to the coast of South Carolina. The trip covered about 900 miles in only 9 hours and proved without doubt that his theory of the easterly jet stream was correct.12

The choice of timing for a such a test flight was not the best. Upon landing, he found himself accused of being a Union spy. After much difficulty, however, Lowe was able to navigate through the South and back across the Ohio river to Cincinnati.13

After his his return to Union territory, Lowe departed immediately for Washington. He too saw the advantages that balloons could bring to the battlefield. With the help of Professor Henry's influence, Lowe gained the attention of President Abraham Lincoln. Lowe conducted experiments on the Smithsonian grounds, as well as in front of the White House, for the purpose of demonstrating the advantages of his ballooning equipment and techniques.14 When he made his ascent in front of the White House, he utilized the technology of the telegraph by running a telegraph line from his balloon basket down to the ground. The first ever Air to Ground communication in history occurred as Lowe sent the following message to President Lincoln:

“Dear Sir”
“From this point of observation we command an extent of our country nearly fifty miles in diameter. I have the pleasure of sending you this first telegram ever dispatched from an aerial station, and acknowledging indebtedness to your encouragement for the opportunity of demonstrating the availability of the science of aeronautics in the service of the country.”
“I am, Your Excellency's obedient servant,
T.S.C. Lowe”15

A chief rival of Lowe was John La Mountain, of New York. Like Lowe, Mountain experimented with the eastern air currents in the upper atmosphere. La Mountain's idea was to utilize this air flow to make free flights over the enemy position, instead of being tethered and stationary.16 John La Mountain soon gained the favor of General Benjamin F. Butler, who was stationed at Fort Monroe, Virginia. Under General Butler's command, La Mountain made six free-flight reconnaissance ascensions from October to December, 1861.17 Despite his success, La Mountain's bitter rivalry with Professor Lowe made it necessary for the War Department to choose between the two aeronauts. Unfortunately for La Mountain, Lowe had gained the favor of President Lincoln and La Mountain was dismissed from service.

With his rival aeronauts out of the picture, Lowe was contracted on August 2, 1861 to construct the first military balloon and thus establish an Aeronautic Corps within the Union Army. The balloon was completed on August 28, 1861.18 To make the Aeronautic Corps battlefield capable, Lowe had to overcome several obstacles. The main obstacle, as stated by Lowe, was to develop an efficient and portable system of generating the hydrogen for the balloons.19 After about a month of observations within Washington Lowe was commanded by Major-General McClellan, the Secretary of War, to construct four additional balloons, along with the hydrogen generators needed to fill the balloons in the field. By October 12, 1861, the four balloons and the gas generators were completed.20 The five balloons now in the Army's possession were called “Eagle” (the original balloon built), “Constitution”, “Washington”, “Intrepid”, and “Union”.21 Each balloon was capable of ascending over one thousand feet.22 The Aeronautic Corps was under the command of the Topographical Engineers, who assigned several squads of men to assist with the ascensions.23

From that time on, the Aeronautic Corps accompanied the Army of the Potomac in virtually all its campaigns. The majority of the Aeronautic Corps' service came in correlation with the Peninsular Campaign of 1862. During the Peninsular Campaign, several Union officers made ascents in balloons, including McClellan himself.24 The observations and artillery direction of the Aeronautic Corps were indispensable to the Union efforts during the Peninsular campaign. They made notable observations at the battles of Mechanicsville, Seven Pines, and Fair Oaks.25 The Confederates also made feeble attempts at using balloon technology, but they lacked the resources to construct and operate an effective balloon corps.26

One of the most successful uses of the Union's Aeronautic Corps was at the battle of Fair Oaks. At this battle Lowe ascended over the battlefield using the balloon “Intrepid”, observing Confederate troop movements. At one point, the “Intrepid” ran out of hydrogen gas. Lowe ingeniously fashioned a connector-valve out of a kettle and used it to transfer hydrogen from the “Constitution” to the “Intrepid”.27 Lowe's ingenuity and heroism at the battle of Fair Oaks provided the officers with valuable information and saved General Heintzelman's army which was isolated and vulnerable.

After spending so much time in the boggy terrain during the Peninsular Campaign, Lowe contracted malaria.28 He was forced out of work for over a month at the end of the Peninsular Campaign. The poor outcomes of the Union Army, caused the Army of the Potomac to be called back to Washington to regroup. By the time Lowe was well again, much of his equipment had disappeared and the Aeronautic Corps was in shambles.

The Aeronautic Corps managed to find its way back to service, however, at the Battle of Fredericksburg. The balloons collected vital information about Confederate strength and positions. This information provided by the balloons contributed to Major General Joseph Hooker's decision to protest the plan of Burnside that called for an attack on the area behind the city. Burnside ignored Hooker's protests, however, and Hooker's division suffered huge losses.29

The Aeronautic corps was later reassigned to the Engineers Corps, but never truly found its nitch within the Army of the Potomac Comstock, Lowe's new commander cut his pay to only 6$ per day.30 The original offer by the government before hiring Lowe was $30 per day.31 The diminishing pay, along with lack of acceptance by many officers within the Army caused Lowe to submit his resignation in May 1863, after serving at the battle of Chancellorsville.32 By August of that same year, the Aeronautic Corps ceased to exist.33

The effects that balloons had reached beyond the observations and artillery direction. They offered a sense of comfort and security for both military personnel and civilians.34 The balloons hovering above battlefields also had an effect on the opposing army. Confederate troops saw the balloons and knew that the Union Army had the strategic advantage of being able to see their every move.35 Therefore, the balloons greatly effected the moral of both sides.

The early balloons in America, especially during the Civil War, have had lasting effects on intelligence, military aviation, and the culture of America. Military intelligence would never be the same. The improvements in accuracy of intelligence reports brought by the balloons in the Civil War totally changed the meaning of intelligence and set a precedence for the utilization of technology in correlation with intelligence operations. In previous wars, scouts would have to get dangerously close to the enemy to gather good intelligence; and after they obtained the information, it would take them sometimes hours to return to camp and report. The balloons provided the first real-time battlefield intelligence, showing the importance of technology in warfare.36

The effects have also been felt in the area of military aviation. Today, one of the primary functions of military aircraft is observation and reconnaissance. The current United States military is providing the most substantial proof for T. S. C. Lowe's beliefs that aerial reconnaissance could be the most useful tool on the battlefield and could offer a distinct advantage over the enemy. The latest technology in the U. S. arsenal, is the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or UAV. The Department of Defence is constantly developing new UAV technology that will support the “Joint Vision 2010” quest. The “Joint Vision 2010” quest is a mission to achieve information superiority over any enemy.37 The main mission of these reconnaissance aircraft has not changed at all from the original vision of Lowe. These aircraft exist to provide the military commanders on the ground with “broad area surveillance” of the battlefield.38

The Civil War's use of balloons also contributed to what historian Joseph Corn dubbed “The Winged Gospel”.39 In Corn's book, The Winged Gospel: America's Romance with Aviation, Corn takes a look at aviation from a new perspective. Where most authors have written about the technological history and development of aviation, Corn examines the social and cultural impact that aviation had on the American public. As he explains, aircraft were more than just machines to Americans during the first half-century of flight. They represented hope, and were expected to bring about many beneficial changes that would revolutionize every aspect of life, from military to business and recreational aspects of American society.40 Corn sees the beginning of the winged gospel as the invention of the airplane in 1903. As Roger Bilstein points out, however, American aviation began over a century prior to the Write brothers' invention.41 The first American aeronauts flew in balloons, and from then on, the American fascination with flight continued to grow.

The extent to which balloons influenced the events of the U. S. Civil War is debatable. Perhaps the Union Army failed to realize exactly how much Lowe's balloon corps was contributing to the war effort. The legacy of these nineteenth century balloons, however, cannot be understated. The effects that balloons had on military intelligence, military aviation, and the general course of American history was substantial. Aviation continues to influence virtually every aspect of life today, and there are no signs that this level of significance will drop in the future.

Primary Resources:
“Balloons and Pigeons: Military Aerostation in Various Countries”. The New York Times. New York: 1 August, 1875

“Balloons in Warfare”. The New York Times. New York: 3 September, 1870

Lowe, T. S. C. “The Balloons with the Army of the Potomac.” (Article) in The Photographic History of the Civil War, Volume IV, by Francis Trevelyan Miller, published by Thomas Yoseloff, 1911, (revised 1957).

Official Congressional Records. “First Session of the Thirty-Eighth Congress”. Journal of the Senate of the United States of America, Serial #1175. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1863

Official Congressional Records. “Report”. 37th Congress, 3rd Session, Rep. Com. No. 71. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1863

Official Congressional Records. “Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Part 1”. Reports of Committees: 37th Congress, 3rd Session, Rep. Com. No. 108. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1863

Official Congressional Records. “Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Part 2”. Reports of Committees: 37th Congress, 3rd Session, Rep. Com. No. 108. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1863

Official Congressional Records. “Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Part 3”. Reports of Committees: 37th Congress, 3rd Session, Rep. Com. No. 108. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1863

Official Union Records. “Correspondence, Orders, Reports, and Returns of the Union Authorities from January 1 to December 31, 1863. # 11”. O.R. Series III, Volume III [S# 124].

Official Union Records. “Correspondence, Orders, Reports, and Returns of the Union Authorities from January 1 to December 31, 1863. # 12”. O.R. Series III, Volume III [S# 124].

“Our Country”. The Advance. Ogdensburgh, New York: 2 August, 1861

“Picket Stories”. The Journal and Republican. Lowville Lewis County, New York: 9 July, 1862

Porter, Fitz John. “Fitz John Porter Views The Confederates From A Balloon”. (Article) in The Blue and The Gray, by Henry Steele Commager, published by Mentor, 1973.

“The Army Balloon Corps”. The Washington Star. Washington: 8 December, 1861

“The Army of the Potomac: Relation of the Army and the Government, Condition and Prospects of the Army”. The New York Times. New York: 16 January, 1863

“Use of Balloons in War”. The New York Times. New York: 12 July, 1863

Secondary Resources :
Bilstein, Roger E. Flight in America: From the Wrights to the Astronauts. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2001

Central Intelligence Agency Website. “Intelligence in the Civil War.”

Corn, Joseph J. The Winged Gospel: America's Romance with Aviation. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2002

Crouch, Tom D. A Dream of Wings: Americans and the Airplane, 1875 to 1905. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989

Haydon, Frederick Stansbury. Aeronautics in the Union and Confederate Armies, with a Survey of Military Aeronautics prior to 1861. Manchester, NH: Ayer Company Publishers, June 1979

Jones, Christopher A. “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs): An Assessment of Historical Operations and Future Possibilities”.

Squires, James Duane. “Aeronautics in the Civil War”. The American Historical Review, Vol. 42, No. 4. pp. 652-669. Washington: American Historical Association, July 1937