Civil War Ballooning

The millions of visitors who pass through the doors of the National Air and Space Museum each year come to see the real thing, the actual air and space craft that shaped history — from the world's first airplane to the actual capsule that carried astronauts to the Moon and back. Few if any of our visitors, however, realize that aerospace history was made on the site of the National Air and Space Museum in 1861.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Joseph Henry (then secretary of the Smithsonian), lent support to aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe, who wanted to demonstrate to President Lincoln the potential for balloons to be used for military reconnaissance. That June Lowe made tethered ascents from the National Mall directly in front of where the Museum now stands — a site that was then occupied by the Columbia Armory. His demonstrations led to the development of a balloon corps for the Union Army and the birth of American aerial reconnaissance. Read more about his ascent and the birth of Civil War Ballooning on our blog.

  • Thaddeus Lowe with his Inflation Wagons
    Thaddeus Lowe inflating his balloon Intrepid during the Battle of Fair Oaks.
  • Map of Washington, DC
    This map depicts Washington, DC in 1861.
  • National Mall
    National Mall in Washington, D.C., 1856. The smokestack of the Washington Gas Light Company can be seen in the foreground. The white arrow points to the Mary Anne Hall House, which at the time, was one of the city's best known brothels.
  • Thaddeus Lowe
    Thaddeus Lowe reconnoitering at Battle of Fair Oaks and telegraphing to McClellan's headquarters.
  • Thaddeus Lowe
    Thaddeus Lowe's balloon Enterprise being inflated in Cincinnati, 1861.
  • Columbia Armory
    Washington, DC in 1861. The Columbia Armory can be seen on the right.
  • Binoculars, Thaddeus S. C. Lowe
    Binoculars used by balloonist T.S.C. Lowe during the Civil War.
  • Thaddeus Lowe Balloon Reconnaissance at Battle of Fair Oaks
    Thaddeus Lowe goes aloft aboard the balloon Intrepid to observe Confederate activity during the Battle of Fair Oaks, May 31-June 1, 1862.
  • Abraham Lincoln's Note to Gen. Scott
    Letter written July 25, 1861 by President Abraham Lincoln regarding a proposal to use Thaddeus S. C. Lowe's balloons for observation of enemy positions during the Civil War.
  • Thaddeus Lowe
    Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, aeronaut
  • Thaddeus Lowe at the Battle of Fair Oaks
    View of one of Thaddeus S.C. Lowe's aerial reconnaissance balloons in a field during the Battle of Fair Oaks, 31 May and 1 June 1862.

Mr. Lincoln's Air Force

This interactive online conference was originally presented in 2009 in honor of Abraham Lincoln's bicentennial.

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Mr. Lincoln's Air Force