Before a formal Air Corps was conceived by the US military, the Union Army came up with the idea of utilizing air balloons during the American Civil War. Although they had not fully utilized the capabilities of air space in terms of gaining an advantage over enemies, they managed to use the balloons as a primitive means of forward observers and reconnaissance. The birth (and death) of the Balloon Corps would be the base of what soon would become the Air Force that we know.

Chief Aeronaut

The idea of using balloons during the American Civil War came from highly educated and respected scientist and inventor Thaddeus Lowe. Before the war broke out in 1861, he was making use of his time in preparing for a transatlantic crossing with the use of a balloon. When the Civil War ensued, Lowe thought these balloons could be utilized on the battlefield. He shared the idea, and US President Abraham Lincoln saw the balloons’ potential and gave it a green light.

This, however, was not the first time that balloons would be used for military purposes, as the French also used them during the French Revolutionary Wars in 1792.

At that time, a formal Air Corps was still around 50 years away, and the US government had not dealt with anything like that yet, so they decided it would be best to combine all related activities into a specific unit to be led by someone who had vast knowledge and plenty of experience in the field. This, of course, was Lowe.

With Lowe’s well-respected reputation, he was designated by the government as the “Chief Aeronaut.” He was invited to Washington D.C. to demonstrate the use of the balloon to President Lincoln. Lowe boarded his balloon and rose to about 5,000 ft above. With his telegraph, he started to describe his view to the president below. Lincoln was impressed and decided for Lowe to lead the Balloon Corps as Chief Aeronaut.

Balloon Corps Went to War

Before 1962, the Balloon Corps of the Union was already up and all set.

The Balloon Corps saw little action during the war, but they were perfect in providing an exceptional vantage point, especially in observing the enemy activities. The general in command was the one to decide how the balloons would be used, and most of them did not really see the importance of these air balloons.

Fair Oaks, Va. Prof. Thaddeus S. Lowe observing the battle from his balloon "Intrepid" (<a href=",_Va._Prof._Thaddeus_S._Lowe_observing_the_battle_from_his_balloon_%27Intrepid%27_LOC_cwpb.01561.jpg">Civil War Glass Negatives</a>, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Fair Oaks, Va. Prof. Thaddeus S. Lowe observing the battle from his balloon “Intrepid” (Civil War Glass Negatives, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In total, the Union Balloon Corps had seven different balloons that they operated. The larger ones, like the Intrepid and the Union, could carry up to five people. It could contain around 32,000 cubic feet of lifting gas supplied by hydrogen generators, with the downside being it needed quite a long time to inflate and take flight. Hydrogen is also highly flammable and the telegraph used electricity to operate.  The guys who went up in these balloons were taking quite a risk

On the other hand, the smallest one could carry one person but could be prepared in a short period of time.

The observer in the air balloon, during a battle, could see the entire battlefield and report necessary information to the army below through telegraph. In 1861, Lowe effectively utilized the balloon when he manned one near Washington D.C. to direct artillery fire on an enemy position. He used flags to signal and direct adjustment to the artillery that the rounds were soon landing accurately on enemy positions.

General Fitz John Porter had quite a different experience. He was also from the Union side who also realized the value of balloons in winning the war. He joined Lowe to experience the reconnaissance platform. Now, it’s important to note that these balloons were always attached to the ground using tethering rope to prevent them from drifting away. One time, Porter decided to use only one tethering rope to speed his way up instead of the usual three or four, as per Lowe’s suggestion. This resulted in that single rope snapping and his balloon drifting toward the Confederate lines below. The Confederate soldiers fired a few shots but thankfully, for Porter, his balloon drifted back to the Union position.

Gone with the Wind

The journey of the air balloons and the corps started to die down when Lowe caught malaria in mid-1862. When he returned after his rest and recovery, he found out that all of his equipment and resources for operating the balloons were given back to the Army.

Fair Oaks, Virginia. Prof. Thaddeus S. Lowe replenishing balloon INTREPID from balloon CONSTITUTION.
Fair Oaks, Virginia. Prof. Thaddeus S. Lowe replenishing balloon INTREPID from balloon CONSTITUTION. (Civil War Glass Negatives, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Due to some pay disputes and eventually not becoming the Union Army’s favored scientist, Lowe decided to resign and leave the Balloon Corps in May of 1863. The Balloon Corps was still up by then, and controls were transferred to the Allen brothers instead. The brothers, however, were not able to lead the units as well as Lowe, so before that year ended, the Balloon Corps was already gone with the wind.