The Air Force of the U.S. Civil War
December 30, 2010 10:31 AM   Subscribe

After a test flight nearly ended in disaster at the start of the Civil War, Professor Thaddeus Lowe recovered his balloon and headed back North. Recognizing the potential use of air vehicles in the war, he managed to get an invitation to the White House in order demonstrate the capabilities of balloons in the war effort.

Arriving in DC to meet President Lincoln, where other aeronauts, John Wise and John LaMountain, were attempting to win a contract from the government, Lowe demonstrated the military potential of balloons to the President. Floating 500 feet above the White House in his ship, Enterprise, he used a telegraph to send messages to the ground. The display impressed President Lincoln, who was looking for unconventional means to win the war.

Lowe was put to work with the Topographical Engineers, making observations from the air for map making. Lower ranking officers were impressed with the work and put in a good word for him to the President, who introduced him to the higher ranking officers for field work.

Appointed Chief Aeronaut of the Union Ballon Corps, a civilian group, Lowe constructed more balloons and portable gas generators to rapidly inflate them. His balloons assisted in several battles, noting Confederate positions, troop movements at Yorktown, and Fair Oaks (Numerous newspaper clippings, letters and photos here). He also had the first aircraft carrier, the George Washington Parke Custis, built from a rebuilt barge.

The Confederates were no strangers to balloons, having found a eager young solider, Capt. John R. Bryan to fly a balloon. Yet when the full scope of "being suspended in mid-air by...mere thread under a hot air ballon" became clear, his passions cooled, though he was commanded to continue flying balloons. The Confederacy was at disadadvantage, as the Union blockade prevented materials from getting through, so only two balloons were ever built and both balloons were said to be made from silk dresses and of "many and varied hues".

Despite the potential of the balloons, other members of the military weren't sold on their use or working with civilians who made more than them and tended to be dismissive of the Corps and its work. This lead to Lowe quitting after his salary was slashed and the Union Balloon Corps soon disbanded.

Looking for more details? Watch the War of the Aeronauts on YouTube (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), view a video covering the Union Balloon Corps or browse the links and information on website about Thaddeus Lowe.
posted by nomadicink (12 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Military balloons weren't a new invention and had, in fact, helped the French defeat Austria, the UK, the Dutch Republic and Hanover at the Battle of Fleurus in 1794. That said, military ballooning didn't catch on. Napoleon was a famous doubter and didn't use it.

Also, there's this scene from my favorite Blackadder episode.
posted by Kattullus at 10:51 AM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nice post, I always liked Tom Lovell's rendition of Lowe's balloon.
posted by marxchivist at 10:52 AM on December 30, 2010

This is amazing, on one of my favorite eccentric topics.

Additionally, here are some other ships named Enterprise: Continental Navy, the first practical steamboat, British passenger boat, space shuttle, first commerical tourist spacecraft. Also, a series of fictional spacecrafts you may have heard of.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 10:56 AM on December 30, 2010

space shuttle, first commerical tourist spacecraft. Also, a series of fictional spacecrafts you may have heard of.

Don't forget, the shuttle and the tourist spacecraft were both named for the fictional spacecraft -- which, then, various places in the Star Trek universe claim the starship Enterprise was named for its adventurous predecessors...who were named for....damn time paradoxes, we need some tachyons to sort this out.
posted by AzraelBrown at 11:37 AM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Incidentally, Lincoln was not the first president to witness a balloon flight. That was George Washington. As far as I can tell, no President has ever flown in a balloon.
posted by beagle at 12:00 PM on December 30, 2010

I refuse to believe Teddy Roosevelt didn't ride in a hot air balloon, but if he did I can't find mention of it. However, I did find this picture of the Roosevelt Bears in a hot air balloon (Roosevelt Bears was a children's book series inspired by the teddy bear craze, in fact, Roosevelt bear was another name for teddy bears back when they first appeared).
posted by Kattullus at 12:22 PM on December 30, 2010

Military balloons weren't a new invention...

Nobody claimed they were, I was just stumbled across how they were used in the US Civil War, found it interesting, both in their application and how they were ignored. Can you imagine, generals not believing or ignoring aerial reconnaissance? The mind boggles at what would have happened if balloons had be properly used instead of falling into petty squabbles. I suspect the Confederacy would have put them to better use, if only they had a steady supply of materials.

Lowe's portal generators were pretty neat, they were developed after repeated problems of inflating a balloon near a major city and then trying to walk it to a battlefield.
posted by nomadicink at 12:57 PM on December 30, 2010

I didn't mean my comment as a "gotcha." I was just adding my little bit of information. The history of aerial warfare is really weird and fascinating.
posted by Kattullus at 1:09 PM on December 30, 2010

Were these hot air balloons or lighter than air balloons? The gas generators are labelled as producing hydrogen gas without telling if they were burning it or not.
posted by Mitheral at 4:07 PM on December 30, 2010

Lowe's balloons were lighter than air, I'm almost certain, it's what he learned about when younger. The Confederate balloons were definitely hot air.
posted by nomadicink at 5:03 PM on December 30, 2010

Very cool. Thank you, nomadicink!
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:21 PM on December 30, 2010

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