by Sandra Merville Hart
The U.S. Balloon Corps began in the summer of 1861. Aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe and members of his corps made numerous balloon flights to discover Confederate troop movements from the air.
Confederate General James Longstreet wrote that their army longed for a balloon to use in observations but didn’t have the money.
Captain Langdon Cheves* bought silk in Savannah and Charleston in lengths of 40 feet. This fabric, normally used for women’s dresses, was sewn together and then varnished. Because various colors were used, the balloon made from the silk was beautiful. The balloon’s official name was Gazelle.
The “Silk Dress Balloon,” as it came to be called, was sent to Richmond. Confederates were unable to get pure hydrogen gas. Instead, ordinary illuminating gas from Richmond Gas Works—the same type that lit gas lamps—filled the balloon.
It was moved, full of air, to the battlefield by train. The colorful Silk Dress Balloon was first used by the Confederates at the Battle of Gaines Mill. General Edward Porter Alexander ascended several times to observe the fighting from two miles away. Actual troops were difficult to see yet rising smoke showed him where to direct Slocum’s Division to reinforce Porter’s troops. Night ascensions showed enemy campfires for estimates of troop numbers.
Inability to fill the balloon in the field hampered their efforts. Gas from the Gas Works limited flights to 6-7 hours. They didn’t use Lowe’s three captured portable gas generators.
Confederates were happy enough with the results to take the balloon onto the Teaser, an armed tug boat. When necessary, the balloon was sailed along the James River to Richmond for refilling. On July 3, 1862, the U.S.S. Maratanza captured the Teaser on the James River. The balloon went to Thaddeus Lowe, who cut the fabric for souvenirs.
Another balloon was made in Savannah by Charles Cevor, a balloonist. It was used for the next year in the Charleston and Savannah area until the Second Battle of Charleston Harbor, when it was lost in the summer of 1863.
The Confederates didn’t try again. By then, the U.S. Balloon Corps had dissolved.
A rumor has survived from the war. In 1886, General Longstreet wrote in an article published in Century magazine. He said that a request was made that the ladies donate their silk dresses to make the balloon. It paints a lovely picture of sacrifice that Southern women made throughout the war—and they did sacrifice abundantly—but this particular one doesn’t appear to be factual. Articles that mention Longstreet’s quote also write about the forty-foot lengths of silk purchased by Cheves to make the balloon.
*One source gives the name of Dr. Edward Cheves instead of Langdon Cheves.
“Civil War Ballooning,” American Battlefield Trust, 2021/02/05 https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/civil-war-ballooning.
Clifford, Command Sergeant Major James, USA-Ret. “Balloon Operations in the Peninsula Campaign,” The Army Historical Foundation, 2021/02/05 https://armyhistory.org/balloon-operations-in-the-peninsula-campaign/.
Fanton, Ben. “Gas Balloons: View from Above the Civil War Battlefield,” History.net, 2021/02/05 https://www.historynet.com/gas-balloons-view-from-above-the-civil-war-battlefield.htm.
Paone, Thomas. “The Most Fashionable Balloon of the Civil War,” Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, 2021/02/08 https://airandspace.si.edu/stories/editorial/most-fashionable-balloon-civil-war.