Civil War Balloons: Five Fun Facts

 

Civil War balloons were used for reconnaisance.

Thaddeus Low in a reconnaisance balloon. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

Spycraft rose to new levels during the Civil War. One of the most interesting innovations was ballooning. These five fun facts provide a brief introduction to what was then cutting edge military technology.

French ballooms preceeded Civil War balloons.

The French were the first to use military balloons. L’Entreprenant at the Battle of Fleurus (1794), public domain.

  • Civil War balloons were not the first balloons used for military reconnaissance. France created the Corp d’Aerostiers in 1794 to promote the use of wartime balloon reconnaissance. In the United States, Thaddeus Lowe developed balloons from a more durable material, won an army contract, and formed the Aeronautic Corps, forerunner of the U.S. Air Force. Lowe used portable hydrogen generator wagons to inflate his balloons.
Hydrogen wagon inflates a Civil War balloon.

A hydrogen wagon inflates a Civil War balloon. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

  • The Union Army was the first to combine ballooning with telegraph communications. That was Thaddeus Lowe’s brainchild. Balloons rose up to a thousand feet over the landscape, offering expanded vistas. Using binoculars and sometimes even telescopes for more accurate observation, ballooners observed troop movements, spotted artillery locations, and sketched maps. Troop size was estimated by counting tents. Since it wasn’t possible to shout urgent information down from that height, the balloonists used signal flags or telegraph lines to communication their observations to the ground. Sometimes the balloonists dropped handwritten notes, attached to bullets, overboard. Most Civil War balloons remained tethered to the ground. That facilitated air to ground communication.
Civil War balloons offered vistas like this one.

Aerial view of Washington, D.C. from a Civil War balloon. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

  • Confederates quickly developed countermeasures to frustrate Union aerial reconnaissance. During Lowe’s maiden military flight on August 29, 1861 over Arlington, they pointed their cannon skyward and baptized Lowe with artillery fire. That was our country’s first instance of ground to air artillery. There are no recorded instances of a balloon being shot down during the war on either side, however. The distances were probably too great for accurate fire. Confederates also created false impressions for Union airborne observers. They doused their campfires and created fake artillery by painting logs black and posing them as cannon.
Launching the Intrepid.

Launching the Intrepid, one of Lowe’s balloons. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

  • The South used balloons too. During the Seven Days Campaign, for instance, Confederate reconnaissance balloons hovered over the countryside surrounding Richmond. Robert E. Lee ordered Edward Porter Alexander to observe Union movements, for which Alexander used a balloon. Lee’s balloons were inflated with hydrogen. Johnston used a hot air balloon. I haven’t been able to find a photograph of a Confederate balloon, and if anyone knows of one, please comment and provide a source!
Ships were used to launch Civil War balloons.

The Washington rising from the deck of the George Washington Park Custis. Wikipedia, public domain.

  • Both sides launched balloons from ships: the North from the George Washington Parke Custis and the South from the CSS Teaser. Those ships were our country’s first aircraft carriers.

Have you ever taken a balloon ride? How well could you observe the ground?

Literature on point:

Civil War Trust, Civil War Ballooning

Steven D. Culpepper, “Balloons of the Civil War.” Master’s thesis, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1994.

Howard Brinkley, Spies of the Civil War: The History of Espioage in the Civil War (Bookcaps, 2012).

 

11 Comments

  1. Alana
    Apr 13, 2015

    I don’t know of any pictures of Confederate balloons, nor have I ever taken a balloon ride. Several years ago, at a Civil War reenactment, I did see an example of one of these balloons in one of the exhibits, but this isn’t a common thing. I don’t know why.

    • Ann Marie
      Apr 13, 2015

      Thanks, Alana. I still haven’t given up on finding a picture of a Confederate balloon somewhere! Given that I live in Germany, the search might be a little more difficult.

      I really like your Civil War blog, by the way.

  2. Brian
    Apr 22, 2015

    This blog is full of hot air. (just kidding)

    Did the idiom ‘full of hot air’ come from ballooning?

    • Ann Marie
      Apr 22, 2015

      Yes, but Brian, my hot air takes me places! 😉 That’s a good question. Some early balloons used hot air, and some helium.

      • B
        Apr 23, 2015

        When I googled it I saw a synonym that I’ve never seen before: “full of prunes”

        I like it.

        “Full of hot air” might come from Mark Twain – maybe while he was in Germany?

      • Ann Marie
        Apr 23, 2015

        You might be right it coming from Europe. This source attributes the idiom to Mark Twain, who first used it in 1872. I assume that means in Roughing It, a prequel to Innocents Abroad. Mark Twain didn’t go to Germany, though, on that first trip to Europe.

  3. David
    Nov 9, 2016

    Ah,General Zhuge Liang is said to use sky lantern balloons about 220 BC. And above you write that Lee used hydrogen while Johnson used hot air. I would think since they were on the same side you mean General McClellan. Let me look it up. Will also try to find a picture of a Conferedate balloon.

  4. David
    Nov 9, 2016

    Sorry, no luck. The best that came up was the fictional Jules Verne book turned into a movie. It has Union POWs hijack a hot air balloon, to an enormously improbable landing in the South Pacific Island. Oh well.

    http://www.trbimg.com/img-56a94089/turbine/mc-mysteriousisland2015-jpg-20160127/650/650×366

    • Ann Marie
      Nov 9, 2016

      Thanks for the information, anyway, David. That’s interesting about the Chinese using sky lantern balloons. Since it was a general, can we assume that the balloons had a military use?

      • David
        Nov 12, 2016

        The Wikipedia article and other websites state absolutely yes, for signals rather than observations. Some sites stated that the balloons were commonly used after that, including likely both sides in the cases of many Chinese civil wars/ warring states periods.

        One site mentioned that Genghis Khan’s relatives brought the devises to Europe during the planned invasion and battles of Poland/Hungary circa 1300 AD. This was the first introduction to the continent.

        By the way, until finding something better I would still use the Mysterious Island picture, though it does not seem accurate. It represents a Confederate military balloon, though far too nice looking for Confederate resources and pine cone fires instead of a liquid supply. The movie is online, too.

      • Ann Marie
        Nov 12, 2016

        Signals! They would be good for that, wouldn’t they? I had no idea Genghis Khan brought balloons to Europe. Thanks for commenting — I learned something from you.

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