Mile High Observations
The Federal Balloon Corps


     Warfare does provide opportunity for innovation, and the American Civil War proved itself to be no exception to the rule. Mr. Thaddeus S. C. Lowe quickly stepped on stage presenting to the government authorities in Washington his aeronautic idea in using gas balloons to assist the federal armies in the field with observing Confederate Troop movements

     Having attempted a Trans Atlantic Flight prior to the outbreak of the war, his efforts received the attention of the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and shortly thereafter Mr. Joseph Henry, Secretary, Smithsonian Institute in Washington City. Writing the Secretary of War, The Honorable Simon Cameron in June, Henry saw great potential and a bright future for this aeronaut and his balloons.

     These wonders were able to be inflated with ordinary street gas, maintain its charge for several days, and require little effort in towing them to an opportune location. Depending on its need, the balloons were capable of being launched night or day, equipped with telegraph messaging for easy communication with general headquarters down below, and were capable of floating to the west or east based on the balloon's altitude

    The balloons were designed to make free voyages by drifting with the wind currents. Lower altitudes would carry the aeronauts to the west, while the higher currents returned them to the east, therefore no need for ropes.

     First deployed at Fairfax, engineers used it to draw accurate maps of the area at an elevation of 1,000 feet, yet the balloons had the capability of being three miles in the air. Called on again in July to assist the army at Centreville, the operation became airborne just in time to observe the army in retreat from the fields of Manassas

    Brigadier General Fitz John Porter had taken a special interest in this project and called on Professor Lowe's services on many occasions. By the campaign season of 1862, the balloon corps was called on and accompanied the army to the Virginia Peninsula, General Porter, himself, at times, partaking in their flight. The most infamous of these; The Washington, Eagle and Intrepid would make observations and direct artillery fire, from Fair Oaks to Chancellorsville.

     Thaddeus Lowe left the Army of the Potomac in the spring of 1863 after Major General Joseph Hooker had taken command and reduced the usage of aeronautics within the army. In the two year tenure, Professor Lowe had invested nearly $30,000 dollars on the project and proved to be of great value to the government.

     The American Civil War produced allot of firsts during its four bloody years of conflict. Thanks to the scientific mind of Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, aeronautics would introduce a new untried concept: Warfare from above the battlefield itself.


Dan (Aldie) Daniel Moran
© 2002

Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at dmoran@us-civilwar.net