Although equipment, techniques, and even strategies for military aerial reconnaissance were not new to the American Civil War, they were honed during the conflict. Prior to the war, hot air balloons had been used primarily for entertainment after Joseph and Jacques-Ètienne Montgolfier sent the first one to flight in 1783. Eleven years later, the French Committee of Public Safety created the Corps d’ Aerostiers and used them briefly in the French Revolutionary War during the battles of Charleroi and Fleurus.
Then, in April 1861, Professor Thaddeus Lowe was in newly seceded South Carolina and flew a balloon over Unionville. He was arrested as a Union spy when he landed. It didn’t help that he had a basket full of abolitionist papers with him, but eventually convinced the authorities he was a man of science only and they released him. He hurried back to Washington and was invited by Abraham Lincoln to give a demonstration of his balloons as potential surveillance units. On June 18, 1861, he had his opportunity to prove his case of the value of hot air balloons as military reconnaissance vehicles. Lowe enlisted Secretary Henry of the Smithsonian Institute who had pioneered the study of electromagnetism self-induction and developed the electromagnetic relay, which led to the invention of the telegraph by Morse to help him convince Lincoln.
Lowe ascended with a telegraph wire attached to the balloon tether and dispatched a notice to the White House of what he observed over Washington. Lincoln had dinner with him that night and immediately authorized Lowe to form the Balloon Corps, formally known as the Military Aeronautics Corps. Lowe was authorized to construct four additional balloons and added the Constitution, Washington, Intrepid, and Union to his original Eagle to form his unit.
While Lowe was the darling of General McClellan, John La Mountain was favored by General Benjamin Butler who was stationed at Fort Monroe, Virginia. La Mountain intended to use air currents to fly over enemy positions untethered as opposed to Lowe’s stationary balloons. La Mountain made six successful free-flight reconnaissance missions between October and December 1861. Lowe and La Mountain were bitter rivals, forcing the war department to make a decision. Since Lowe had gained Lincoln’s favor, La Mountain was dismissed.
Lowe developed a portable method of generating hydrogen needed for the balloons in the field. With twenty-two men (not all of them permanent) to crew the balloons and his completed unit, he was ready to prove his worth.
The Aeronautic Corps accompanied the Army of the Potomac in most of its campaigns from then on. Its main service was with the Peninsular Campaign of 1862 during which several Union officers made ascents in balloons, including McClellan himself. The contributions to the battles of Mechanicsville, Seven Pines, and Fair Oaks were invaluable.
When the balloons weren’t in use militarily, they went up recreationally to demonstrate their use to officers and journalists and to promote Lowe’s balloon business. Most journalists jumped at the chance to fly because it made good copy at home and gave them a chance to see what the balloons could really do.
Lt. General Fitz John Porter accepted an invitation to go up one day, but was eager to ascend and insisted on just one tether line instead of the usual three or four which took much longer. Unfortunately, the tether snapped leaving Porter adrift over enemy lines to navigate the balloon as best he could since Lowe was not with him.
Porter had been up with Lowe many times, but he had no idea how to guide the balloon. When the ground crew saw the balloon escape, Lowe jumped on a horse and galloped after him shouting at him to open the valve, but he either didn’t hear or didn’t heed and the balloon was on its way. Soldiers wrote later they didn’t much care if they lost the general, but the loss of the balloon to the Confederates would be a catastrophe.
Once over the Confederate camp, the sharpshooters peppered the air with balls and Porter threw off the sandbags for ballast, gaining more height to escape their range. He miraculously managed to catch a wind current known as an “air-box” and return to within 200 feet of where he started.
When he, at last, got close to his own camp again, he jerked open the valve to lower the balloon, but opened it too far and lost the rope controlling the valve. The balloon now resembled a limp rag and was plummeting toward a large tree in the camp. Porter saw his chance to save his life and leaped for the tree. He flung an arm and a leg around a large limb, but the balloon enveloped him, and he was breathing pure hydrogen. Men from Birney’s camp below rushed to pull him from his cocoon. He was safe, but his nerves were shot.
Porter was a close friend of McClellan who wrote to his wife: I am just recovering from a terrible scare. Early this morning I was awakened by a dispatch from Fitz Johns Hd Qtrs, stating that Fitz had made an ascension in the balloon & that the balloon had broken away & come to ground some 3 miles SW – which would be within the enemy’s lines! You can imagine how I felt! I at once sent off to the various pickets to find out what they knew, & try to do something to save him – but the order had no sooner gone, than in walks Mr. Fitz just as cool as casual – he had luckily come down near my own camp after actually passing over that of the enemy!! You may rest assured of one thing: you won’t catch me in the confounded balloon nor will I allow any other Generals to go up in it!
Porter had apparently recovered his nerves by the time he appeared in McClellan’s tent.
McClellan put out an order after that there was to be no more sightseeing in the balloons and no officers would go up without written permission. The balloons would be used for surveillance purposes only.
Captain George Armstrong Custer, who had a rather harrowing experience of his own in a balloon, was happy to follow orders for once.
The balloons provided exceptional information about enemy forces, but were used mainly in the Eastern Theater. Unfortunately, many generals still viewed them as novelties and carnival acts, and even with provided reconnaissance information from them might choose to ignore it.
Part of the mistrust was that Confederates had become wise to the aerial observations and had begun disguising camps or decoying attention away from true positions. Sometimes they set campfires in false camps or set up logs painted black to look like cannons “Quaker guns.” Real camps might not have fires.
Lowe returned to Washington after the Seven Days Battle where he contracted malaria in the city and was bedridden for a month. By the time he returned to his balloons, the quartermaster had confiscated all his equipment for his balloons. His men, with few exceptions, had been put back in regular service, and his Balloon Corps had all but been dismantled. He had to re-introduce himself to the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, Ambrose Burnside who used Lowe at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Burnside transferred him to the Army Corps of Engineers under Captain Cyrus Comstock who resented Lowe being paid more than he was and slashed his pay.
Lowe had originally been offered $30 a day for service, but held out for $10 a day in gold. His pay was slashed to $6 currency. Lowe tendered letters of outrage, but no one came to his support, and he officially quit on April 8, 1863. The Balloon Corps completely collapsed a few months later.
Romantics put forth stories about Confederate General Longstreet issuing a plea for southern belles to donate their silk ball gowns to make War balloons. That never happened.
Langdon Cheves used his own funds for the Confederate balloon project purchasing forty-foot bolts of dress silk in Savannah and Charleston for the balloon that would become known as the Gazelle. Cheves did not have access to the same type of supplies as Lowe, namely the white silk due to the blockade, so he made do with what was available and had seamstresses sew the balloon. He oversaw the construction at the Chatham Armory in Savannah where the finished material was then varnished to seal it. This multicolor patchwork creation became known as, “the Silk Dress Balloon.”
Once completed, it was handed over to General Edward Porter Alexander to begin the observations. They had to use ordinary illuminating gas from the Richmond Gas Works since they couldn’t get pure hydrogen. The balloon was moved by train to Alexander where the first observations were made during the Battle of Gaines Mills. This gas, created from coal, was primarily used to light gas lamps in homes and on streets throughout Richmond. After the balloon was filled in Richmond, it was attached to a train car and moved to the front. Alexander made his first observations during the battle of Gaines Mill, from which he was able to signal Union troop movements to Confederate troops.
The Gazelle was later loaded onto an armed tug called the Teaser and the ship would bring it from the Gas Works to the front lines on the James River. That worked well until the Teaser came under fire from Union vessels and it ran aground. The Gazelle was captured, and Lowe had it cut up into pieces for souvenirs for congresspeople.
Thus ending the balloon wars.