<< Thaddeus Lowe & Civil War Ballooning
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Suggestions for Teaching about President Lincoln's Air Force
In June of 1861, President Abraham Lincoln witnessed Thaddeus Lowe ascend in a gas balloon over the National Mall. This demonstration convinced Lincoln that balloons could be of use in reconnaissance and he encouraged Lowe to start the Union Army Balloon Corps (Aeronautic Corps). The materials on this site can enrich your presentation of the early years of the Civil War (1861-1863) with an emphasis on the Balloon Corps.
Although Thaddeus Lowe was not the only aeronaut (balloon pilot) to think of using balloons for military espionage, he was in the right place at the right time and gained the ear of President Lincoln. Before the Civil War, Lowe had long been interested in balloons and had been attempting to make the first transatlantic balloon crossing. He had been corresponding with Joseph Henry, the first Secretary (director) of the Smithsonian Institution, a scientist whose study of weather patterns lead to the formation of the National Weather Service.
Joseph Henry introduced Lowe to President Lincoln. Henry also helped arrange a demonstration which took place on June 16, 1861, on what is today the National Mall, right in front of where the National Air and Space Museum stands.
Lowe ascended to an altitude of 500 feet aboard his balloon Enterprise and dispatched the first telegram ever sent from the air to President Lincoln in the White House. With Lowe still in the basket, the balloon was walked to the White House, where President Lincoln invited the aeronaut in to discuss the creation of an Aeronautic Corps to support the Union Army.
President Lincoln, the only president to hold a US Patent, was excited by the technological possibilities of a Balloon Corp. Anxious to shorten the war in any way possible, the President felt that aerial reconnaissance would benefit the Union Army.
Thaddeus Lowe had tried many times to meet with General Scott about using balloons for espionage, and in fact had a note of introduction from the President. However, it wasn't until Lincoln personally escorted Lowe to meet the elderly General Scott that the meeting actually took place.
After this meeting the Union army authorized Lowe to build seven war balloons and to hire assistant aeronauts. He also designed mobile gas generators, or inflation wagons, that could produce hydrogen for inflating the balloons on the battlefield.
In 1862, Lowe and the Balloon Corps traveled from Washington DC, to Virginia. Under General George McClellan, Union troops fought their way up the peninsula between the James and York Rivers towards Richmond. During the Battle of Fair Oaks/Seven Pines (May 31-June 1, 1862), Lincoln read Lowe's telegraph messages transmitted from the balloon to the War Department in Washington.
General McClellan failed to capture Richmond. The Balloon Corps and the Union army abandoned the Virginia peninsula. During the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, the aeronauts watched the river crossings and countryside for shifts in the enemy's positions. The balloons unsettled the Confederates. The Rebels shot at the balloons but never brought one down.
At the Battle of Fredericksburg late in 1862 and at Chancellorsville in 1863, the Balloon Corps continued to report on troop movement and defenses. But poor decisions by Union generals resulted in another Confederate victory. After this battle, Lowe, a civilian contractor, resigned because of disagreements with the army about pay and management of the balloons. Support for the war balloons dwindled among military leaders and by the end of summer 1863, the Balloon Corps was abolished.
The ability to see what the enemy was doing from a birds-eye view and the potential of sharing real time information. Lowe and his aeronauts also performed other services, such as artillery spotting, helping gunners to hit a target that was hidden from them but visible from the balloon.
What didn't work:
The Army Corps was a civilian contractor; it never gained the full trust of the military leadership. The communications technology of the time was not able to deliver the information quickly enough, although the people in the balloon could see what the enemy was doing, they were not always able to communicate the information to the Union commanders in actual combat. Finally, the balloons, with their heavy inflation wagons and stores of equipment could not always move fast enough to keep up with the army. That, combined with Lowe's frustration with army officials who did not understand his problems and sought to reduce his funding spelled the end of the Army Balloon Corps.
The Union Balloon Corps was the first aerial unit in U.S. military history. While the U.S. would not have a regular balloon unit until the 1890s, European observers carried word of Loweâ€™s Balloon Corps back to their own armies. By 1870, Germany, France, and England were using balloons for aerial reconnaissance. The use of tethered balloons for aerial reconnaissance played a major role during World War I.
A note about the video resources
You could teach the Civil War for years and always find something new to share with your students. The National Air and Space Museum might not seem a likely place for resources about the Civil War. However, the Museum collections include a pair of Lowe's field glasses and during the sesquicentennial of Lowe's ascension on the Mall, the Museum hosted a symposium and family program to commemorate this important event that took place so close to the Museum's location. Dr. Tom Crouch, senior curator of Aeronautics is responsible for collections related to ballooning. This website includes various video segments of him speaking about Thaddeus Lowe. There are also short video clips featuring reenactors from the family program held in June 2011.