Air Balloons in the Civil War

In honor of my RC club’s air show on Saturday I thought that I would discuss the role that air balloons played in the Civil War.

If you aren’t a student of the Civil War you may not have realized that they actually used balloons during the War. No, they were not floating over enemy lines and dropping molotov cocktails on their heads. Air balloons were used for observation of enemy movements. They were tethered in place, with either signal flags or telegraph wires being used to communicate what they were seeing. By rising above the earth to around 500 feet a person could see miles across the country side. This helped in determining just how many of the enemy they were facing.

President Lincoln authorized the first use of the balloon in 1861 after having one tethered on the front lawn of the White House for a night or so. He felt that they could really be useful in military operations. This was one of the few things that General George McClellan agreed with him on. McClellan used observation balloons quite often, in fact he employed the use of one during the Seven Days Campaign in 1862.

Both sides used the balloons, but the Union did so more than the Confederates. Despite the initial popularity of the program they were discontinued in 1863. This was due to various reasons, including the fact that during the din of battle it was often difficult to get any kind of communication from the balloon to the commanders on the field. Logistics and confusion really made it more trouble than it was worth.

If you’re wondering, none of the balloons were ever shot out of the sky. Though that wasn’t for lack of attempting to do so. The Confederates were reported to have taken quite a few shots at them, but just like Tom Chamberlain jokes in the movie Gettysburg “Notice how those Rebel guns always overshoot?” lol

Hopefully I’ve ‘raised’ your interest in the topic. Maybe your curiosity is ‘soaring’ and you would like to read more about it? I know that this post wasn’t very detailed or very long, but maybe you’ve learned about something that you didn’t know. If so, then I’ve done my job. Have a great Wednesday!

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3 Responses to Air Balloons in the Civil War

  1. Jamie says:

    Very nice! I always introduce balloons as the very first spy planes when I give tours. It piques people’s interest for sure. 🙂

  2. TSC Lowe says:

    Thanks for this nice introduction to Aeronautics during the Civil War. Most ‘students’ of the war focus on famous leaders or battles and the role of balloons gets a cursory sentence or paragraph. A more appropriate title would however be “Gas Balloons In The Civil War” as they used ‘city gas’ or hydrogen to inflate them.

    Both sides did use balloons. The North made over 3,000 ascensions with seven balloons and nine professional aeronauts to operate them, and the South made less than 10 with two balloons and no professional aeronauts.

    I recommend the following books for those who want to learn more:

    THE book on CW ballooning is F. Stansbury Haydon’s “Military Ballooning During the Early Civil War”, 1941 & 2000. It is very technical and with 282 footnotes in the 38 pages of chapter 1, is used to teach Military Historians how to document their research.

    Dr. Tom Crouch, Senior Curator of Aeronautics for the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum discusses CW Ballooning in his book “The Eagle Aloft – Two Centuries of Ballooning in America.” 1983, Smithsonian Institute Press.

    The easiest read is “The War of the Aeronauts”, 2002, by Charles Evans

    He also has a seven part YouTube video series that covers the information in his book.

    If you can find a copy, there is one 48 page pamphlet written by Joseph Jenkins Cornish III in 1963 entitled “The Air Arm Of The Confederacy”

    The most recent book written is Gail Jarrow’s “Lincoln’s Flying Spies”, 2010. It’s 93 pages covers basic information and includes lots of pictures.

    NO CIVIL WAR BALLOON LIBRARY would be complete without “Above The Civil War” by Eugene Block, 1966

    Stephen Poleskie wrote “The Balloonist – The Story of T.S.C. Lowe – Inventor, Scientist, Magician, And Father Of The US Air Force”, 2007

    For the truly dedicated reader Michael Jaeger and Carol Lauritzen edited and shared in 2004, “The Memoirs of Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, Chief of the Aeronautic Corps of the Army of the United States During the Civil War – My Balloons in Peace And War”


    Mary Hoehling’s: “Thaddeus Lowe, America’s One Man Air Corps”, 1958

    Lydel Sims’: Thaddeus Lowe – Uncle Sam’s First Airman”, 1964

    Burke Davis’: “Runaway Balloon – The Last Flight of Confederate Air Force One”

    For those interested in fictional story telling that includes Civil War Balloons:

    Joan Russell Piccard wrote “Adventures On The Wind”

    Kris Jackson wrote “Above the Fray Part I & Part II”

    Robert E. Alter wrote “High Spy”

    Ann Rinaldi wrote “The Last Silk Dress”

    Blue Skies and Soft Landings to All!

    Kevin Knapp / Thaddeus Lowe, Aeronaut
    Civil War Balloon Corps Living History

    • Thank you so much for the additional resources! I’ll admit that this area of the War is not my forte, but I hoped that by posting about it I would inspire somebody else to look more into it. If at least one person was inspired and caught the Civil War bug then I will be happy. 🙂

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