SEE RESIDENTIAL HOUSING AVAILABLE NOW
Civil War Balloon Corps
Fight or flight ... or both: Balloon corps gives Union upper hand during Civil War
Published: Saturday, October 09, 2010
By PAUL POST, The Saratogian
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Thaddeas Lowe’s bird’s eye view of the Civil War saved thousands of Union soldiers’ lives by frustrating the best laid plans of Confederate officers.
The visionary New Hampshire native’s balloon corps gave Northern generals a previously unheard of advantage by allowing them to track Southern troop movements from up to a half-mile high in the sky.
History buff Ray Wemple of Rotterdam told about Lowe’s unsung heroics during a presentation to the Schenectady Amateur (Ham) Radio Association that includes several Saratoga County members. The course of history has turned on communications and Lowe’s aerial role in the Civil War is largely overshadowed by more famous battles such as Gettysburg and Antietam.
"In May 1862, he helped save the day at Fair Oaks, Va.," Wemple said. "He got Union troops in the right position at the right time."
Fascinated with anything flight-related as a youth, Lowe got a chance to demonstrate ballooning to President Abraham Lincoln on the White House grounds — on June 16, 1861 — two months after the war began. Rising to a height of 600 feet, tethered by a rope-and-pulley system, Lowe could see everything within a 50-mile diameter. The balloon basket was equipped with a telegraph key that allowed him to communicate what he saw to people on the ground — the first known use of an aerial telegraph station.
Totally impressed, Lincoln sent a letter to Union commander Gen. Winfield Scott telling him to take advantage of Lowe’s ingenious idea.
"There were five balloons at the beginning," Wemple said.
Their names were the Union, Enterprise, Constitution, Intrepid and Washington. The latter two were 60 feet tall and 38 feet wide, and all five were made of silk with a heavy linen cord casing covered with layers of shellac to keep gas from escaping. Unlike today’s modern hot air balloons, fueled by propane burners, Lowe’s balloons were kept aloft with hydrogen gas produced with a combination of acid and iron shavings.
"Needless to say, people were prohibited from smoking," Wemple said, laughing.
The process proved to be quite effective, however, as balloons would stay inflated for two weeks at a time. Lowe and other balloon corps pilots would take to the sky early in the morning to track enemy positions, frustrating Confederate officers to no end.
"Never once was any balloon hit," Wemple said.
Despite being an obvious target, balloons were always kept far enough behind front lines to save them from falling victim to a rifle shot or artillery blast. Once, however, a cannon ball that missed a balloon wound up hitting a Union officers' latrine, producing a shower of foul material — and language.
Lowe sought an officer’s commission, but was never granted one. His biggest fear, as a civilian, was being captured behind enemy lines and shot as a spy. An officer would have been taken prisoner.
In April 1861, only days after hostilities broke out, Lowe began a misguided flight from Cincinnati that wound up in South Carolina — the first state to secede from the Union. Fortunately, he convinced local officials that he was simply lost and was allowed to make his way back North, making possible his later service to the Union Army.
On Sept. 24, 1861, Lowe went aloft at Fort Corcoran, Va., and reported rebel artillery three miles away. The information enabled Union artillery to hit their Confederate foes.
"That was the first time artillery was directed from the air," Wemple said.
At Budd's Ferry, Md., balloons were put up over the middle of a river from a floating coal barge — the world’s first aircraft carrier. The South had two balloons of their own, but never developed a formal balloon corps such as Lowe’s. Some pilots, such as Troy native John LaMountain, were quite daring. Able to gauge air currents at different altitudes, he once flew over enemy positions near Union-held Fort Monroe, Va., drew pictures and sketches, then lowered his balloon and caught a current heading back to where he’d started from.
Unfortunately, Union officers didn’t always appreciate the balloonists’ efforts, despite the invaluable intelligence they provided. Pilots got $10 per day, the same as a full colonel risking his life fighting on the ground in the heat of battle. In April 1863, following a command change, balloon use was discontinued to the delight of Southern leaders.
Interviewed in 1891, almost 30 years after the war, Confederate Gen. E.P. Alexander said, "I have never understood why the enemy abandoned the use of military balloons early in 1863, after using them extensively up to that time. Even if the observers never saw anything they would have been worth all they cost for the annoyance and delays they caused us in trying to keep our movements out of their sight."
What became of Lowe?
He made and lost several fortunes before dying penniless in 1913. To those whose lives he saved, his service paid eternal dividends.