H/T Beyond The Band Of Brothers.

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

Despite the inauspicious start, the Balloon Corps served with honor at various locations: the Siege of Yorktown, the Battle of Fair Oaks, the Seven Days Battle outside Richmond, the Battle of Fredericksburg and other clashes. While some theaters of the Civil War were characterized by static lines, sieges and what later developed into the trench warfare of the Great War, many others saw a new type of highly mobile warfare. Troops and artillery engaged in rapid strikes and counterstrikes, maneuvered over great open areas punctuated by towns, farmsteads, mill, bridges and railway junctions, any of which could become a vital strategic point in a matter of hours or even minutes. Observation balloons became immensely useful in overseeing these wide battlefields and reacting to sudden developments. They could track the movement of armies up to a day’s march away.
Contemporary print of the Battle of Fair Oaks with
one of Lowe’s balloons in the background
Lowe and his men communicated with their headquarters on the ground in various ways. The balloons were tethered as a matter of policy, allowing a telegraph line to be run up to an operator. At other times, especially with smaller balloons that had no space for an extra man, messages could be conveyed with flags, speaking-trumpets, light signals at night or simply placed in a capsule and dropped to the ground. Lowe was also in the habit of simply having his balloon towed in to land and making his report in person.
Lowe’s Enterprise being inflated in Cincinnati before the 1861
flight that led him to Unionville by mistake
In November 1861, the balloon Washington was stowed on board the coal barge George Washington Parke Custis, whose superstructure and engines were stripped off to make it flat. Towed by steamer down the Potomac, the balloon ascended on November 10 to scout the Confederate forces on the Virginia shore three miles away. Lowe later sent a message including “I have the pleasure of reporting the complete success of the first balloon expedition by water ever attempted” but he was wrong about one detail: it wasn’t the first. That accolade goes to the Austrian ship Vulcano, which (unsuccessfully) launched balloons to bomb Venice in 1849. Nevertheless, the coal barge became the first U.S. aircraft carrier, decades before the first airplane made its flight.
Contemporary drawing of the Washington’s ascent
from the George Washington Parke Custis
In 1862, Lowe accompanied the Peninsula Campaign with three balloons, achieving what was possibly his greatest military success on the night of May 4-5. The Union army besieging Yorktown believed that the Confederates were reinforcing and resupplying the place, since there were more wagons entering the city than exiting it. During his nocturnal ascent, however, Lowe spied a tiny but crucial detail: whenever the wagons passed a campfire, their wheels were illuminated. And, contrarily to expectations, inbound wagons were rolling fast as if empty, while outbound one moved slowly as if carrying heavy cargo. The Confederates weren’t reinforcing Yorktown; they were withdrawing. This timely realization allowed Union troops to get moving early in the morning and overtake the withdrawing troops at Williamsburg in one of the few decisive Northern victories of the campaign.
Lowe ascending during the Battle of Seven Pines
During the Battle of Seven Pines, Lowe ascended with the Constitution and spied Union General Samuel P. Heintzelman’s corps, who had crossed the river and were heading toward Richmond, getting gradually surrounded by Confederate units. He landed and sent word to McClellan, recommending that a nearby bridge be repaired and reinforcements sent. He ordered the Intrepid, a larger balloon also nicknamed the McClellan because it bore a large painted portrait of the general, to be inflated and prepared for a higher-altitude ascension with a telegraph operator to advise on maneuvers; but when he arrived to the launch site, the Intrepid was still an hour away from being ready. Driven by need, he told his men to cut out the bottom of a camp kettle and used the improvised device to transfer gas from the landed Constitution to the Intrepid, cutting the inflating time down to 15 minutes. This enabled him to get back in the air in time to report on further Confederate movements while the reinforcements reached Heintzelman.
Photograph of the Intrepid being fueled from the Constitution
At the Battle of Gaines Mill, Lowe found new competition not from rivals to his office this time but from the Confederacy. On the far side of the battlefield, a second balloon rose into the air: the Confederate Gazelle, piloted by an officer and engineer named Edward Porter Alexander. Lacking the Union’s industry, the Gazelle was made from dress silk (according to some sources, acquired by collecting already fashioned silk dresses from Southern ladies) and powered by illuminating gas. The Gazelle had a short career: about a week later the ship carrying it ran aground and was captured by Union troops.
Confederate aeronaut Edward P. Alexander
The Union Army Balloon Corps only outlasted its short-lived Confederate rival by a little. Lowe soon contracted malaria and was unable to work for a month. By the time he recovered, his wagons, mules and equipment were returned to the Army Quartermaster. The constant resistance by lower-ranking officers and bureaucrats also took its toll. After his salary was cut by a vengeful captain who couldn’t live with the idea of a civilian being paid more than him, Lowe resigned and the Corps soon fell out of use completely.
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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