Civil War Profiles: Pioneering airborne reconnaissance during the Civil War


On Monday, June 17, 1861, in Washington, D.C., President Abraham Lincoln observed from a second-floor window of the White House as Thaddeus Lowe ascended in the gondola of the Enterprise from the grounds across the street, along Pennsylvania Avenue.

At an altitude of more than 1,000 feet from the hot-air balloon, Lowe transmitted a message to the president via a battery-powered telegraph key attached to a wire running along one of the tethers anchoring the balloon to the ground.

“Dear sir,” it read, “From this point of observation we command an extent of country nearly fifty miles in diameter. The city with its girdle of [military] encampments presents a superb scene. I have the pleasure of sending you this first telegram ever dispatched from an aerial station and acknowledging indebtedness to your encouragement for the opportunity of demonstrating the availability of the science of aeronautics in the service of the country.”

An admirer of new technology, Lincoln invited Lowe to stay at the White House, and the two men discussed potential applications long into the night. After breakfast the next morning, the president gave the eager balloonist a letter of introduction to Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the Union army.

Charles M. Evans described these events in a history of ballooning in the Civil War titled “War of the Aeronauts.” The media, including the Washington Evening Star and the New York Herald, were enthralled by the ground-breaking method of aerial reconnaissance, and federal government authorities endorsed the experimental program.

Given that the Union military leadership was steeped in tradition, however, convincing them to employ the cumbersome ballooning technology on the frontlines proved more challenging. Resistance subsided to some degree when Lowe gained information from his airborne platform about Rebel positions several miles away across the Potomac in Virginia; thereby directing accurate artillery fire against these military targets.

According to “Balloons in the American Civil War” commissioned by the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission, that success led Secretary of War Simon Cameron to fund construction of additional balloons. The fleet consisted of the Intrepid, Constitution, United States, Washington, Eagle, Excelsior and Union.

The balloons ranged in size from 32,000 cubic feet down to 15,000 cubic feet. They had sufficient cable to climb to an altitude of 5,000 feet.

The presence of the airborne reconnaissance platforms began to affect the outcome of battles in Virginia. In April 1863, at Fredericksburg, Lowe provided hourly reports on the position and movements of the enemy in the vicinity of the Rappahannock River. The presence of balloons forced the Rebels to conceal their positions by ordering blackouts at night and creating dummy encampments and gun emplacements. (See http://centennialofflight.net/essay/Lighter_than_air/Civil_War_balloons/...).

Trouble loomed ahead for the balloon program when the army grew weary of the logistics involved in its transportation and support. Lowe, a high-strung civilian, also had difficulty maintaining cordial relations with his military overseers.

Lacking firm political support from Washington, the once-promising aeronautical venture was permitted to literally fade away. Except for Thaddeus Lowe, its creator, few tears were shed for its demise.

The Union army command decided instead to rely on the Signal Corps for observation of enemy positions. From perches on tall buildings, hilltops and constructed towers, signal personnel were able to spy on the enemy and report their disposition and strength by transmitting messages in code, using flags during the day and torches at night.

The newly-created Signal Corps also had a rocky start within the U.S. army at the beginning of the Civil War. It achieved recognition by demonstrating ability to provide timely and accurate data about the enemy without the logistical issues that burdened the balloon program.

Despite the disappointing outcome at the time, Thaddeus Lowe and his compatriots experimented with airborne reconnaissance more than 150 years ago during the Civil War. The origins of modern sophisticated platforms, such as the ultra-high altitude reconnaissance aircraft Lockheed U-2, can be traced to the ingenuity and innovation of these pioneering men of science.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War” (signed copies available at Bethany Beach Books). Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.