The Balloon Corps of the Civil War

Thaddeus Lowe’s Union Army Balloon Corps poses with an inflated balloon and observation basket near an unidentified battlefield. Photo via.

If there is anything that has experienced an entirely unique and interesting history, it is aviation. From the Wright brothers to the Blackbird, the innovations and creative ideas that helped get us into the air have been nothing short of amazing. Recently I was studying aviation history and I came upon something I had never heard of before. I decided to do some research and find out more about this interesting piece of aviation history.

In 1861, the beginning of the Civil War had come upon America. The North and South were split, and President Abraham Lincoln was desperate for a new way to help the Union defeat their enemies and abolish slavery. It would take some creative ideas to get the upper hand against the Confederate Army.

A man by the name of Thaddeus Lowe was one of the top American balloonists and was also in the business of building balloons for other aeronauts. He successfully flew his balloon over 600 miles on an eastward wind to the coast. He traveled from Cincinnati, Ohio to South Carolina in about nine hours. He was convinced he could cross the Atlantic Ocean, a feat unaccomplished at the time, in just two days.

Unfortunately Lowe never had the chance to complete is Atlantic flight. After landing in South Carolina, the locals saw his Ohio newspapers and figured he was a Yankee. They ordered him to be shot, but he used his charm and wit to talk his way out of the situation. When he finally found a northbound train and headed home, he could see the beginnings of war in America. He decided then that his Atlantic flight was not important, and he was determined to serve his country. With a great idea and resources available, he went to President Lincoln to pitch the idea of creating a Union Army Balloon Corps.

On June 18, 1861, Lowe had the chance to show Lincoln exactly what his balloon was capable of. He traveled to Washington and discussed the possibilities with the president, who was intrigued and asked him to demonstrate with his balloon. To prove that balloons had value in the war, Lowe decided try something he had never done before. He ran a telegraph line from his balloon to the ground, and sent a telegraph to President Lincoln from the air. He was asked to spend the night at the White House and they discussed plans for a future balloon corps.

Lowe was placed in charge of all Balloon Corps operations, and successfully aided in several spying, land mapping, and other helpful missions for the Union Army. The creation of the Balloon Corps also brought along the first instance of an aircraft carrier in history. Although many enemies shot at the balloons, they were never hit.

This is just a brief overview of the fascinating story of the Balloon Corps. I highly encourage further reading and research into the subject, as the stories of these aeronauts are simply amazing!