H/T Beyond The Band Of Brothers.

The American Civil War pioneered air warfare with its military balloons.

Part I

The first military use of balloons occurred at the Battle of Fleurus in 1794, when a French balloon observing Austrian troop movements was a major asset to the eventually victorious French forces. It is unsurprising that the American Civil War, the conflict which ushered in the era of technological and industrial warfare, utilized the same invention almost 70 years later.
Painting of the Battle of Fleurus with the French balloon in the sky on the top right
Lincoln was interested in the reconnaissance use of balloons and several American balloonists travelled to Washington to contend for the position of chief aeronaut of the as-yet-unestablished Balloon Corps, the job going to self-educated inventor, scientist and aeronaut Thaddeus S. C. Lowe.
Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe
At the time, Lowe was preparing for a transatlantic balloon voyage but one of his test flights went wrong. In April 1861, a flight from Cincinnati to the eastern seaboard was blown off course and landed in Unionville, South Carolina, a few days after Virginia’s secession from the Union. After brief detainment on suspicion of being a Yankee spy, he was let go, just as he was summoned to Washington. During a demonstration, he ascended 500 feet above the Columbian Armory with a telegraph key and operator, and sent a message to Lincoln in the White House across the street through a line attached to the balloon’s tethers:

Balloon Enterprise
Washington, D. C. 16 June 1861
To President United States:
This point of observation commands an area nearly fifty miles in diameter. The city with its girdle of encampments presents a superb scene. I have pleasure in sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station and in acknowledging indebtedness to your encouragement for the opportunity of demonstrating the availability of the science of aeronautics in the service of the country. T.S.C. Lowe.

An artist’s rendering of Lowe’s historic ascent near the White House
In July, Lowe rushed to the First Battle of Bull Run to demonstrate both the utility of the observation balloon with his own Enterprise and the necessity to build new, improved ones for military use. After an altercation with one John Wise, a fellow contender to the leadership of the Balloon Corps who insisted on flying his own balloon first but got it caught on a bush, he was free to ascend. Making an untethered flight, he ended up landing behind Confederate lines and twisted his ankle. He was found by friendly troops but couldn’t be evacuated on foot. Once the report came in, though, his wife disguised herself as an old woman and drove a wagon there to rescue him and his equipment. Despite the complications, his exploits convinced Lincoln to found the Union Army Balloon Corps with Lowe at its head.
Lowe’s wife, Leontine Augustine Gaschon Lowe
The Corps faced difficulties from the get-go. Due to a misunderstanding it remained a civilian organization through the war, with none of its hand-picked crew receiving a commission. While their reports were appreciated by the generals relying on them in battle, many lower-ranking officers considered the aeronauts useless and presented a constant bureaucratic hurdle. Another detractor was John LaMountain, Lowe’s earlier rival for the position, and the first to actually make a military report from the air as an independent balloonist at Fort Monroe. Once he lost his bid and was assigned under Lowe, he launched a vitriolic campaign to discredit his superior and seize his position.
John LaMountain
Despite such difficulties, the Balloon Corps proved itself useful time and again. A total of 7 balloons were built in different sizes and altitude categories, using India silk, lightweight cotton for the rigging and a varnish with a secret recipe to make the balloons leak-proof. Rather than using coal gas from the municipal stations of nearby towns as a propellant, Lowe designed hydrogen generators small enough to be wagon-portable. These copper tanks, marvels of contemporary engineering, created hydrogen gas by exposing iron filings to sulfuric acid.
The Intrepid being filled by two generators at Gaines Mill
The first new balloon, the Union, was called into service in October 1861, despite the gas generators still being in production. Driven by need, it was filled with coal gas in Washington and towed to its destination in Lewinsville, VA overnight. The deployment ran into a major problem: the Chain Bridge crossing the Potomac. They had to cross the river by the bridge, but it was a trellised and covered structure, its top crisscrossed by metal beams. In order to get the floating balloon across, its handlers had to climb on top of bridge and cross on the beams, keeping the balloon secure at the same time. After a nine-hour struggle, the team finally arrived in Lewinsville in the morning… only to have a sudden gale-force wind rip the Union free and take it away.
Contemporary photograph of the Chain Bridge, prominently featuring the top structure that caused a major problem in towing the balloon
To be continued…
You can learn more about how the American Civil War shaped not only the nation but also military technology at large on our American Civil War Tours in 2018!
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