These Civil War Hot Air Balloons Were Basically the First Reconnaissance Drones

Then, again.
Nov. 21 2013 7:46 AM

The Drones of the Civil War

Meet the hot air balloonist who convinced Lincoln to use aerial reconnaissance.

Thaddeus Lowe observing from his balloon Intrepid at the Battle of Fair Oaks, 1862.
Thaddeus Lowe observes from his balloon Intrepid at the Battle of Fair Oaks in 1862.

Photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives

Excerpted from Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air by Richard Holmes, out now from Pantheon.

On April 19, 1861, just as the drums of war had begun to sound in Washington, Thaddeus Lowe launched his small, businesslike balloon the Enterprise from a vacant lot in the heart of Cincinnati. Lowe’s ambitious plan was to fly 500 miles due east over the Allegheny Mountains, and to land in Washington, ideally perhaps on the front lawn of President Lincoln’s White House. Here he might offer his services to the Union cause, and outflank rival aero­nauts who hoped to do the same. In the event, he met a rebel breeze, and ended up much farther south, having skirted Kentucky and Tennessee, and finally touching down after 650 miles near Unionville in the heart of the seceded state of South Carolina.

On landing, Lowe found the Civil War already declared and decidedly in progress. The local cotton farmers were not impressed by his flying skills or his Yankee accent. On the contrary, he was arrested as a spy for supposedly carrying dispatches from the Union North, blatantly piled in the corner of his balloon basket. With some difficulty, due to local illit­eracy, he was able to demonstrate that these dispatches were actually a special balloon edition of the Cincinnati Daily Commerce, and thereby escape being lynched.

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Lowe and his balloon were packed off unceremoniously on a coach back west. Once safe in Kentucky, which had not seceded to the South, he switched to the railroad and hurried north to Washington, with his balloon and basket in packing cases. Here the news was that the Union Army of the Potomac was preparing to invade rebel Virginia, and was already skir­mishing across the Potomac River near Arlington. Its new commander, Gen. George C. McClellan, like a good Yankee, was in principle sympa­thetic to advanced technology. Provided it was securely tethered, the Enterprise could carry up telegraph equip­ment and a wire, and send direct aerial observations to a commander on the ground. Lowe demanded to demonstrate this to Lincoln himself as a matter of acute urgency.

It says a great deal about Lowe that, amid all the administrative chaos of a newly declared war, he achieved exactly this. On Sunday, June 16, 1861, Lowe ascended in his balloon some 500 feet above Constitution Mall, Washington, with a telegraph key and an enthusiastic Morse operator. The telegraph wire was strapped to the tether line and winch, and then run directly across the lawn and into a service room in the White House. Lowe transmitted the following message:

Balloon Enterprise. Washington, D.C. 16 June 1861
To President United States:
This point of observation commands an area nearly fifty miles in diameter. The city with its girdle of encampments presents a superb scene. I have pleasure in sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station and in acknowledging indebtedness to your encouragement for the opportunity of demonstrating the availability of the science of aeronautics in the service of the country. T.S.C. Lowe

In this dramatic fashion, Lowe succeeded in persuading Lincoln to allow him to form an official Military Aeronautics Corps within the Union Army. Lowe finally received Union funds to build further balloons in August 1861. His fleet eventually consisted of no fewer than eight mili­tary aerostats: the Union, the Intrepid, the Constitution, the United States, the Washington, the Eagle, the Excelsior, and the original Enterprise. The new balloons could carry enough tether and telegraph cable to climb to 5,000 feet.

On Sept. 24, Lowe ascended in the Union to more than a thousand feet near Arlington, across the Potomac River from Washington, and began telegraphing intelligence on the Confederate troops located at Falls Church, Va., more than 3 miles away. Union guns were then calibrated and fired accurately on these enemy dispositions without actually being able to see them. This was an ominous first in the history of warfare, by which destruction could be delivered to a distant and invisible enemy.

* * *

Falling Upwards by Richard Holmes.
Falling Upwards by Richard Holmes.

For the rest of 1862, it was Lowe’s Union Balloon Corps that operated exclusively during the Virginia phase of the Civil War.

Lowe’s balloons were present at the siege of Yorktown in May 1862; at the Battle of Fair Oaks in May–June 1862; at the crucial Seven Days Battle outside Richmond in June–July 1862; and at the bloody Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. He also witnessed the famous rebel victory by Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville in May 1863.

From his balloons, Lowe witnessed a new kind of American fighting. Rapid, violent, passionate, and patriotic (on both sides), it was based on a swift exchange of attack and counterattack. There were long days of immobility and siege, especially at Yorktown. But most characteristic was the constant maneuvering of infantry and artillery across open coun­tryside checkered with small townships, manufactories, farmsteads, mills, river bridges, and railway junctions, any one of which could suddenly become a strategic key point, where thousands might die. Speed, and often dissimulation, were vital factors. Military intelligence—the knowl­edge of the enemy’s dispositions, troop numbers, firepower, potential reinforcements, and above all its unexpected movements and hidden intentions—was paramount. Lowe always believed that balloons could supply this.

What Lowe observed was a new kind of infantry war, with great tides of men and metal constantly clashing. It produced casualty figures never before seen in American history.

Yet Lowe rarely described the human details of what he saw. Instead, he confined himself to tactical reporting, like someone observ­ing the moves in a vast, impersonal game of chess. But the unmistakable sounds of war came up to him—the boom of shells, the rattle of shots, the screaming of wounded. He wrote: “It was one of the greatest strains upon my nerves that I ever have experienced, to observe for many hours a fierce battle.”

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