by Sandra Merville Hart
On June 17, 1861, Aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe’s balloon flight from the Columbia Armory (current location of the National Air and Space Museum) snagged the attention of President Abraham Lincoln when he received a telegraphed message from Lowe—from the balloon in flight at a height of 500 feet!
Lowe’s balloon was tethered to the White House lawn that evening while the two met. Lincoln supported the use of balloons in surveilling Confederate troops from the air.
Lowe became the chief aeronaut in the U.S. Army Balloon Corps. The War Department built military balloons for the corps. The first one was ready in August.
Union and Intrepid could carry 5 people and were the largest balloons used by the Union army. United States and Constitution held 3 people. A couple, Eagle and Excelsior, were manned by one person. The larger balloons had room for telegraphers, an important advantage.
Lowe became a member of Major General George B. McClellan’s staff. In September of 1861, Lowe directed artillery fire from his balloon at Falls Church, Virginia.
The U.S. Balloon Corps had several members: Corporal James Starkweather, Privates William A. Hodges, Albert Trunbull, W.H. Welch, Francis Barrington, Robert Wardell, James F. Case, George W. Fisher, John H. Hall, and Lawrence M. Chickey. Civilians also worked in the corps. Among these were Aeronauts James Allen, John La Mountain, and John Wise, who was considered the “Father of American Aeronautics.” Lowe also hired his father Clovis.
Balloons were used at Washington D.C., Seven Days’ Battle, the Peninsular Campaign, Battle of Seven Pines, and Fort Monroe in Virginia, to name a few.
Also, La Mountain made a tethered balloon ascent on August 3, 1861. It is significant to history because it was launched from the steam-powered gunboat Fanny. There are scholars who believe this first flight to be a precursor of the aircraft carrier.
Confederates shot at the ascended balloons. Fortunately, none were shot down. Their height usually kept them out of range. That didn’t prevent the Southerners from shooting. In fact, Lowe earned the dubious title of “the most shot-at man in the war.”
Several Federal officers ascended in these balloons, including John Reynolds, Joe Hooker, George McClellan, Fitz John Porter, Baldy Smith, John Sedgwick, and George Custer.
Unfortunately, problems with aeronauts receiving pay from the army led to resignations. Conservative generals preferred intelligence from spies, scouts, prisoners, and deserters. Vague reports from aeronauts frustrated field commanders. To top it off, Lowe didn’t get along with his staff supervisor Captain Cyrus B. Comstock and resigned on May 7, 1863.
James and Ezra Allen were then the last members of the U.S. Balloon Corps. They reported Confederate movement from Fredericksburg toward the Blue Ridge Mountains as they marched toward Gettysburg in June. The Balloon Corps ceased to exist in the summer of 1863.
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“Civil War Ballooning,” Smithsonian National Space & Air Museum, 2021/02/05 https://airandspace.si.edu/learn/highlighted-topics-/flight/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.
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Mortimer, Gavin. Double Death: The True Story of Pryce Lewis, the Civil War’s Most Daring Spy, Walker & Company, 2010.
“Thaddeus S.C. Lowe,” Wikipedia, 2021/02/05 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thaddeus_S._C._Lowe.