War Balloons

by Daniel Russ on October 25, 2010

Union Civil War Balloon

The Civil War marked the first use of aerial reconnaissance with the advent of the hot air balloon. Balloonists John LaMountain and Thaddeus Lowe received a commission from the Union Army to create the Balloon Corps that was organized by Lincoln under the auspices of the United States Togographical Enginering Corps. The idea, oddly, belonged to Cincinnatti news editor Murat Halstead and Treasury Secretary Chase who received a nod from Lincoln to establish a demonstration. The first demonstration went badly when the balloon was accidentally untethered and had to be shot down to avoid capture by Confederates. On September 24th, 1861, a Balloon, The Union, was sent aloft over Washington and observed the movements of Confederate troops at Falls Church, Virginia and telegraphed positions to commanders on the ground. Union artillery fire was directly accurately at Confederates which would mark the first time the US Army used technology to hit targets that gunners could not see.

Civil War Reconnaissance Balloon

A fleet of Union Observation balloons were created, The Eagle, the Saratoga, The Constitution, Excelsior, the Union and the Washington. During the Siege of Yorktown (the Civil War siege), Fredericksburg and Fair Oaks, Lowe telegraphed Confederate positions to commanders and ensured victories. Eventually Confederates had to conceal positions, go lights out at night and even made dummy encampments to fool Union troops.

It was Lowe’s idea to tether balloons to seagoing vessels and provide troop information to commanders. That would make the George Washington Parke Custis, an old coal barge the first aircraft carrier. Oddly, the effectiveness of the balloons was not taken advantage of, yet the news made it to a German inventor named Zeppelin. Not surprisingly, during the Peninsular Campaign, accurate reconnaissance sent to McClellan caused him to panic and withdraw.

The Confederates did not have the money to create a Corps of balloon reconnaissance, so they used dress ilk to make one and the rumor spread that Confederate ladies had to donate dresses for its construction.

Balloons would later on be used across the world as bombers, reconnaissance and mail and troop carriers. The Austrians bombed defenders of Venice in 1849, the Japanese used balloons against the Russians in Manchuria in 1904 and the French took Bien Dien Phu from the Vietnamese with the help of balloons in 1884.

Most Balloons could only go up a mile and were at the mercy of winds, or worse, crews that weren’t skilled at ballooning. It is said also that many troops, snipers, artillery crews and naval gunners tried to shoot down balloons. Few were actually shot down. The interesting part about balloons in war is that they were really the first third dimension on the battlefield. Air power would not come into its own until the First World War but once commanders saw the potential they pursued the technology.

in 1870, when the Prussians has Paris surrounded, Jules Durouf ascended from the French post office and delivered the news about the French predicament to troops behind the Prussian lines. On the way there he dropped invitations to visit Paris on the Prussians.

Source: www.centennialofflight.gov

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Louis August 31, 2017 at 9:22 am

As far as I know the USA (and the CSA) did not use hot air for their balloons but filled them from portable hydrogen gas generators

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