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Union Army Uses Balloons for Reconnaissance

During four years of Civil War, there were many innovations in weaponry, tactics, medicine and naval vessels. In July 1861, Thaddeus Lowe, with the help of President Abraham Lincoln, ushered in a new phase of gathering military intelligence with the Union Army Balloon Corps.

Lowe, who was self-educated in the field of chemistry, meteorology and aeronautics, was a scientist and inventor. With the start of the Civil War, Lowe offered his expertise to the Union cause. Lowe’s expertise at that time was building balloons. Prior to the start of the Civil War, Lowe hoped to construct a balloon for a transatlantic flight.

Instead, Lowe pitched the idea of using balloons as aerial reconnaissance to pinpoint Confederate troop positions, allowing the Union army to operate with more precise knowledge about the battlefield.

On June 11, 1861, Lowe met with Lincoln and Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase, proposing a demonstration using his balloon, the Enterprise. Five days later, Lowe’s balloon rose from the armory across from the White House, hovering over the capital city.

In the basket with Lowe, was a telegraph operator. A telegraph line ran beside the balloon tether line allowing for a telegraph to be sent. From a height of 500 feet, Lowe telegraphed a message to Lincoln describing his view of Washington D. C., and the surrounding countryside.

Lincoln was sold. The President was willing to try any thing that might bring an end to the southern insurrection. Initially, Lowe served with Topographical Engineers, using his balloon to make more accurate maps of the countryside.

Lowe’s first battle action was at First Manassas on July 21, 1861. Major General Irwin McDowell rode along with Lowe, allowing the general to make preliminary observations of the battlefield.

During the fighting at Manassas, Lowe was fired on by Union troops as he attempted to land. The Union soldiers thought the balloon was with the Confederate army. Lowe ascended to a height out of range of the Union rifles.

Afterwards, Lowe flew the balloon to see if Confederates were indeed following up their victory with an advance on Washington. On that flight, Lowe landed in no man’s land past the Union picket line.

Members of the 31st New York Infantry found Lowe, who had injured his ankle during the hard landing. The soldiers reported Lowe’s position and his wife, Leontine, secured a wagon and rescued her husband and his balloon.

Lincoln sent Lowe to meet General-in-Chief Winfield Scott with the notion of forming a Union Army Balloon Corps. Initially, Scott gave Lowe the runaround, never being available to meet the professor.

Lincoln quickly cleared the red tape, personally bringing Lowe to Scott’s headquarters. When Scott greeted the President, Lincoln introduced Lowe as Chief Aeronaut of the newly formed Union Army Balloon Corps, telling his general to facilitate Lowe’s work in every way.

Over the next two years, seven balloons were constructed and used at locations at the Peninsula, Seven Pines, Antietam, Fredericksburg and other major battles in the eastern theater.

The Balloon Corps remained a civilian contract service and not a part of the military. Such duty was dangerous as the balloons made a tempting target during its ascent and descent. If any of the civilian members of the Balloon Corps were captured, they risked being hanged as spies.

The Balloon Corps remained in service until the resignation of Lowe during the summer of 1863.