Our First Air Force

It is a fundamental principle of warfare: control the high ground and you have the advantage.

Of course, the ultimate high ground is in the air. In the American Civil War, that meant balloons. Both the Union and Confederacy experimented with balloons, with the Union having more success, although “success” is a relative term in this case.

The Union effort was the brainchild of Thaddeus Lowe, who was known for traveling exhibitions and even attempts to cross the Atlantic Ocean by balloon. Lowe had actually made a 900-mile flight from Cincinnati, Ohio to Unionville, SC a few days after the attack on Fort Sumter (only to be jailed as a suspected spy). After his release, he traveled to Washington, DC and offered his services to the Northern cause. He demonstrated his mettle by sending a telegram to President Lincoln from a balloon 1000 feet over Washington on June 21, 1861. The result was approval for a fleet of balloons (some sources say five, some say seven) and the necessary support equipment.

The balloons themselves were of varying sizes, ranging from 15,000 cubic feet to 45,000 cubic feet of gas. They were made from silk sown by seamstresses. Their outsides were treated with four coats of boiled linseed oil, benzene, and japan drier; neat’s-foot oil treated the inside to keep the fabric pliable. The balloons were lifted by hydrogen gas, which provided more lift than hot air. The gas was generated by a mobile generator that used sulfuric acid and iron filings.

By January, 1862, Lowe’s balloon corps was supporting General George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign with seven balloons. Their original purpose was to provide aerial intelligence from a very high vantage point. Then it was quickly realized this high platform was ideal for artillery spotting.

However, several problems hampered their effectiveness. First was communication. A telegraph line from the balloon to the ground, say directly to an artillery battery, was cumbersome and taxed the capabilities of the Signal Corps. Tying notes to rocks was unsatisfactory. A basic signaling system worked somewhat better.

Second was a reluctance of artillery batteries to be directed by someone outside their fraternity. Apparently the obvious solution of having an artillery officer man the balloon was never considered.

Third, some countermeasures were developed. It didn’t take long for Confederate artillerymen to find a way to elevate their cannon enough to have a real shot at these large and defenseless targets.

Fourth, and perhaps the greatest obstacle to the Balloon Corps was organizational.
The Corps always seemed to be viewed as a stepchild, since no one quite knew where it belonged or how best to use it. Its initial home was under the Corps of Topographic Engineers for possible map-making applications. Then it was allowed its own telegraph section, breaking ties to the Military Telegraph Corps. The Quartermaster Corps and the Corps of Engineers were its next assignments. Early 1863 found the Corps being attached to the Signal Corps, an unwelcome addition since this new organization was short-handed to begin with. Enough was enough, and the Balloon Corps was disbanded in May, 1863.

Was the Balloon Corps effective? Yes, according to Confederate sources, who observed that they were worth their value in their nuisance effect alone. When Confederates spied an airborne balloon, they tried to keep movements to a minimum and hide their camps, sometimes going so far as to shield their fires at night.

Thus the Confederates tried to copy the Union, but had even less success. Their balloon effort was hampered by lack of suitable materials; one balloon was supposedly fabricated from silk dresses donated by Southern belles. There was also a shortage of both sulfuric acid and iron with which to generate hydrogen gas. The Confederates tried to compensate by anchoring a balloon to a railroad locomotive, then using the locomotive to reach a suitable observation station. Although cumbersome, this did work reasonably well. Then a steamship was tried, which was used until the steamship ran aground and both it and the attached balloon were captured.

Perhaps this was another case of an idea being ahead of its time. But not for lack of trying: at one point Lowe had a coal barge rebuilt for balloon use. Did this make the “USS George Washington Parke Custis” the first aircraft carrier (even though it was towed by a tugboat)? And there were patents issued during this period for flying machines to be used as bombers. But during this period such thinking was considered more eccentric than visionary.

It would take a world war before aviation would have a significant military application.


“Arial Bombers” and “U.S. Observation Balloons”, Civil War Cards , Durham, CT: Atlas Editions, 1995

Faust, Patricia L. (editor), “Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War”, New York: Harper Perennial, 1986

Hogg, Ian V., “Weapons of the Civil War”, New York: The Military Press, 1987

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *