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Transcript
Balloons in the American Civil War
Both the Union and Confederate armies used balloons for reconnaissance during the American Civil War, marking the first time that
balloons were used in the United States for reconnaissance. The professional aeronaut John Wise was the first to receive orders to
build a balloon for the Union army. However, the balloon never was used because it escaped its tethers and was shot down to
prevent it from falling into Confederate hands.
Thaddeus Lowe and John LaMountain both carried out reconnaissance activities for the Union army during the war. Lowe had
foreseen the usefulness of balloon observations when he had accidentally landed in South Carolina on a flight from Cincinnati, Ohio,
to the Atlantic Ocean in April 1861.
Inflation of the balloon Intrepid to reconnoitre the Battle of Fair Oaks, 1862
One of his financial supporters, Murat Halstead, editor of the Cincinnati Daily Commercial, wrote to U.S. Treasury Secretary Salmon
P. Chase and suggested that the United States establish a balloon corps under Lowe's command. This corps would provide aerial
reconnaissance for the Union armies.
Secretary Chase arranged a meeting between Lowe and President Abraham Lincoln for June 11, 1861. On July 17, 1861, Lowe
demonstrated his ideas for balloon reconnaissance and also for sending telegrams from the balloon to the commanders below. He
used the Enterprise, attached to tethers and floating 500 feet (152 meters) above Washington, D.C. President Lincoln was duly
impressed. Later that summer, President Lincoln established the Balloon Corps, a civilian organization under the authority of the
Union's Bureau of Topographical Engineers, and granted Lowe permission to requisition equipment and personnel.
Lowe received funds to build a balloon on August 2, 1861. The first U.S. balloon designed for military use, the Union, was ready for
action on August 28. Because he was forced to inflate the balloon with gas from municipal lines in Washington, D.C (he had not
received his funds yet for a portable gas generator), the balloon could not be moved far, which limited operations to the
Washington, DC, area.
On September 24, 1861, Lowe ascended to more than 1,000 feet (305 meters) near Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River
from Washington, DC, and began telegraphing intelligence on the Confederate troops located at Falls Church, Virginia, more than
three miles (4.8 kilometres) away. Union guns were aimed and fired accurately at the Confederate troops without actually being
able to see them—a first in the history of warfare.
This triumph led the Secretary of War Simon Cameron to direct Lowe to build four additional balloons. Two more followed shortly.
The fleet now consisted of the Intrepid, Constitution, United States, Washington, Eagle, Excelsior, and the original Union. The
balloons ranged in size from 32,000 cubic feet (906 cubic meters) down to 15,000 cubic feet (425 cubic meters). Each had enough
cable to climb 5,000 feet (1524 meters).
Thaddeus S. Lowe observing the battle from his balloon Intrepid
At the same time, fellow aeronaut John LaMountain was also attempting to provide balloon services for the Union. He wrote to
Secretary Cameron in 1861, but, because he had no influential backers, LaMountain did not receive a reply. However, the
commander of the Union Forces at Fort Monroe, Major General Benjamin F. Butler, contacted him and asked for a demonstration.
Using the Atlantic, which he had used to attempt to reach the Atlantic Ocean earlier, he made two successful ascents at Fort
Monroe in July 1861. The New York Times reported that LaMountain could view the Confederate encampments beyond Newmarket
Bridge, Virginia, and also at the James River north of Newport News. LaMountain had actually made the first aerial reconnaissance
of the Civil War and also was the first to gather intelligence by free balloon flight rather than from a tethered balloon.
LaMountain, however, did not have the Union Army behind him, and he had difficulty obtaining equipment. He managed to obtain
another balloon, the Saratoga. That balloon, however, was lost on November 16, 1861. He tried to get some of Lowe's equipment,
but Lowe refused to cooperate. Each man found supporters, and the rivalry between the two grew. Finally, after accusations and
hostilities on both sides, on February 19, 1862, General McClellan dismissed LaMountain from any further service to the military.
Lowe continued providing tactical reports to the Union troops. He provided information during the siege of Yorktown, Virginia, and
in late April 1863, at Fredericksburg, he transmitted hourly reports on Confederate movements. During the battle of Fair Oaks,
Virginia, Lowe continually transmitted information on enemy troop positions. Observations made during this battle proved to be
crucial to the Union victory.
The presence of the balloons forced the Confederates to conceal their forces. To avoid detection, they blacked out their camps
after dark and also created dummy encampments and gun emplacements, all of which took valuable time and personnel.
However, the balloon corps did not last until the end of the war. General George McClellan was relieved of his command in 1863,
and Captain Cyrus Comstock, who was assigned to oversee the balloon corps, cut its funding and thus its effectiveness. Lowe was
also accused of financial impropriety, and his pay was reduced. Lowe resigned from the balloon corps on May 8, 1863. By August
1863, the corps had disbanded.
A reconnaissance balloon is launched from the coal barge George Washington Parke Curtis, during the American Civil War
As well as aerial reconnaissance and telegraphy, Lowe and LaMountain also introduced the use of aircraft carriers. Lowe directed
the construction in 1861 of the first aircraft carrier, George Washington Parke Custis, a rebuilt coal barge with a flight deck
superstructure. On one occasion, she towed one of Lowe's balloons for 13 miles (21 kilometres) at an altitude of 1,000 feet (305
meters) while Lowe made continuous observations. On August 3, 1861, LaMountain used the deck of the small vessel Fanny to launch
an observation balloon 2,000 feet (610 meters) over the James River. He used the Union tugboat Adriatic for the same purpose.
Word of the Americans' achievements even reached Europe, where the Prussian army sent Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin to learn
what he could from this kind of warfare.
The Civil War balloon Intrepid
Some authorities claim that, although balloon observations contributed to battle victories, the Union Army's commanding generals
did not use the balloon observations advantageously. Vague reports on Robert E. Lee's movements issued from the hydrogen balloon
Intrepid during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign apparently served only to panic General McClellan. The general withdrew his vastly
superior forces and positioned them seven miles (11 kilometres) from Richmond, Virginia, rather than attacking the sparsely
defended Confederate capital and ending the war three years and tens of thousands of lives sooner. After McClellan was relieved of
his command, Ulysses S. Grant took over and reorganized the Army of the Potomac. Preferring to rely more on attrition than on
intelligence, he disbanded the Balloon Corps.
Inflation of the balloon Intrepid to reconnoitre the Battle of Fair Oaks, 1862
The Confederate Army also formed a smaller version of the balloon corps. In the spring of 1862, Captain John Randolph Bryan
offered to oversee the building and deployment of an observation balloon. This balloon consisted of a cotton envelope coated with
varnish. Unlike the hydrogen-filled Union balloons, it was a Montgolfiére—filled with hot air—because the Confederacy did not have
the equipment for generating hydrogen in the field.
The war balloon at General McDowell's headquarters preparing for a reconnaissance
Bryan launched the balloon on April 13, 1862, over Yorktown, Virginia. Even though the balloon was rotating on its single tether
while aloft, Bryan managed to sketch a map of Union positions. On his next flight, Bryan ended up in free flight after the tether was
cut to free an entangled ground crew member. He was fired upon by Confederate troops below who thought he was the enemy, but
managed to escape and land safely.
The second Confederate balloon was constructed of multi-coloured silk, which gave rise to the legend that this Confederate balloon
was made from silk dresses donated by the ladies of the Confederacy. Although the "Silk Dress Balloon" was constructed from dress
silk, no actual dresses were sacrificed. This balloon was gas-filled in Richmond, Virginia, and carried to the field by tethering it to a
locomotive. In 1862, when the battle area moved too far from the railroad, it was attached to a tugboat and carried down the
James River where the tug, unfortunately, ran aground and was captured.
Another "Silk Dress Balloon" was constructed and went into service at Richmond in the fall of 1862. It provided aerial observations
from its post until the summer of 1863 when it escaped in a high wind and was captured by Union troops.
Military balloons 1850 - 1900
In the nineteenth century, the military used balloons for three purposes. One was for aerial bombing of military targets. The second
was for aerial reconnaissance by captive balloons. The third was for communications and to transport personnel, mail, and
equipment.
The first aerial bombing was attempted in 1849 when the Austrians launched 200 pilotless, bomb-carrying hot-air balloons against
forces defending Venice. Each bomb was released by a time fuse. However, the wind sent the balloons back over the Austrian
troops. This idea was abandoned until the Japanese revived it in World War II.
In France and Austria, there was a brief attempt to use air-filled balloons (Montgolfiéres) during the Italian campaign of 1859, but
the results were unsuccessful because the balloons would not stay aloft long enough.
Improved versions of balloons were used for bombing in various colonial military campaigns, such as in the French capture of Dien
Bien Phu near the Vietnam-Laos border in 1884. In the early twentieth century, the Japanese used balloons against Russian forces in
Manchuria in 1904-1905, as did the Italians in Tripoli in 1911-1912. This use of balloons for bombing by the Japanese and Italians
violated the 1899 Hague Peace Conference that banned the "discharge of any ...explosive from balloons."
The wartime use of balloons for bombing continued into modern times. Zeppelins were effectively used during World War I. During
World War II, the Japanese turned the balloon into the first intercontinental strategic weapons delivery system when they sent
about 9,000 hydrogen-filled balloons to the West Coast of the United States.
The second use of balloons by the military was for aerial reconnaissance, which began during the Napoleonic Wars. The U.S. military
first used balloons during the American Civil War.
Night departure of a balloon during the Siege of Paris, 1870
Possibly the most dramatic use of balloons in the war in Europe took place in September 1870 during the siege of Paris in the FrancoPrussian War. When Paris became completely surrounded by the Prussians, French aeronauts suggested to the head of the Post
Office that balloons should be used to communicate with the outside world and with the provisional government at Tours. The Post
Office accepted the suggestion, and on September 23, the professional aeronaut Jules Durouf departed from the Place St. Pierre in
Montmartre in Le Neptune with 227 pounds (103 kilograms) of mail. He landed his balloon safely three hours and fifteen minutes
later behind enemy lines at the Chateau de Craconville. On his way, Durouf dropped visiting cards on the enemy position as he flew
above the reach of enemy guns.
During the Siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-1871, balloons were manufactured within railroad stations in Paris. The balloons were used to get mail and passengers
out of Paris
Due to the direction of the winds and the fact that balloons could not really be steered, the stream of balloons went in only one
direction—out of Paris. So, a later balloon, La Ville de Florence, transported carrier pigeons as well as mail. The pigeons were used
by the French to carry messages back into Paris.
Since the balloons did not make their way back to Paris, the French needed more and more balloons and began a flurry of balloon
building. These new balloons were built with cheap materials and were often piloted by inexperienced aeronauts. Originating from
the temporarily empty railroad stations and yards, they ferried people, as well as mail and pigeons out of Paris. Some were barely
able to reach a safe landing away from enemy lines. On October 7, 1870, the minister of the new French government, Léon
Gambetta, made a dramatic escape from Paris by balloon, and with his chief assistant, Charles Louis de Saulces de Freycinet,
established a provisional capital in the city of Tours.
Because the Prussians were reputed to have a special anti-aircraft gun, the French authorities ruled that, starting in mid-November
1870, balloons must leave Paris only by night. This added new hazards for the inexperienced aeronauts. Balloons could not be
controlled, and they landed at unexpected locations, sometimes with fatal results when they landed in enemy territory. On one
flight, two aeronauts became lost and drifted 800 miles (1,287 kilometres) to Norway. Two other balloons were lost without a trace.
Altogether, a total of 66 balloons left Paris during the siege, and 58 landed safely. They carried some 102 people, more than 500
pigeons, and five dogs, which were supposed to return to Paris carrying microfilm but who never reappeared. The balloons also
delivered more than two million pieces of mail as far away as Tours, 125 miles (201 kilometres) to the southwest of Paris.
The war contributions of the aeronauts led to the formation, in 1874, of a "Commission des Communications Aeriennnes." On its
recommendation, a military aeronautical establishment was set up in 1877 under the direction of Charles and Paul Renard. This
organization has continued to exist into modern times.
Other countries followed France's example. Germany organized a Balloon Corps in 1884, and Austria followed in 1893. Russia soon
opened a school for aeronautical training near St. Petersburg.
In Great Britain, two officers, Captain F. Beaumont, who had served with Thaddeus Lowe's Balloon Corps in the American Civil War,
and Captain G.E. Grover tried unsuccessfully to persuade the British military to recognize the military value of balloons. But the first
British military balloon was not used until Captain J.L.B. Templer, an amateur aeronaut, brought his own balloon, the Crusader, to
Woolwich Arsenal in 1879 along with another balloon, the Pioneer. The British began military balloon training in 1880. Members of
the balloon corps were trained in free flight as well as in observations from a tethered balloon in case the tethered balloon broke
away from its cables. Templer almost died in one of these free flights when the weather deteriorated, and a Member of Parliament
who was on the flight did die.
During this time, Templer and his associates realized that a new way of storing the hydrogen gas that filled the balloons was needed
because generating the gas near the battlefield was too cumbersome and slow. Compressed cylinders for the gas were suggested,
and when the problem of a gas-tight valve was solved, the cylinders came into use both in Britain and in other countries. Storage
pressures increased rapidly and, by 1890, the French claimed they could inflate a small balloon in 15 minutes.
Templer also recognized the need for a lighter and more impervious balloon fabric. He found a London family who had been using
goldbeaters' skins (the outer layer of the intestines of an ox used by goldsmiths) for toy balloons and hired them to provide fabric to
the British government. By the end of 1883, they had produced their first balloon that could lift one observer to a useful height. The
balloon, the 10,000-cubic-foot (283-cubic-meter) Heron, served in South Africa.
During the Boer War in South Africa, 1899-1902, a balloon is used to watch for the Boers
The advances in balloon technology impressed the British military, which moved the Balloon Section to larger quarters and included
it in British Army establishments. They increased the number of balloon sections, and four balloon sections participated in the South
African War at the end of the nineteenth century.