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Air Balloons in the Civil War

Battle scene with Union soldier charging confederates. Hot air balloon in the distance.
The Battle of Fair Oaks, Va. May 31st, 1862. War balloon "Intrepid" in the distance.

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For many, riding in a hot air balloon can be an exhilarating yet peaceful experience. Yet, during the American Civil War, balloons were used for very warlike purposes. The first recorded use of balloons by military forces came in 1794 when the French Committee of Public Safety created the Corps d’ Aerostiers. These balloons were sporadically used for reconnaissance during the French Revolutionary Wars, seeing action during the battles of Charleroi and Fleurus. Nearly 70 years later during the American Civil War, balloons were still being used for similar military purposes.

Civil War balloons like the Intrepid and Union (Union) and the Gazelle (Confederate) were used for reconnaissance or directing artillery fire on enemy positions. They could reach elevations of 1,000 feet, allowing a great vantage for miles around. Operators would use signal flags or telegraphs to send information to soldiers on the ground. The Union’s balloon program was most successful under the leadership of Thaddeus Lowe. Professor Lowe earned the trust of President Lincoln, to whom he described via telegraph the view of Washington D.C from a balloon in the summer of 1861. Shortly thereafter Lowe was named chief aeronaut of the newly created Balloon Corps.
Nine men fill an early war balloon using hoses connected to large wooden wagons
The Union Army Balloon Intrepid being inflated from the gas generators for the Battle of Fair Oaks.

Mathew Brady

The largest Union balloons, the Intrepid and the Union each had a capacity of 32,000 cubic feet of lifting gas. Gas needed to fill these crafts was supplied by special hydrogen-generating inflation wagons, or by diverting gas from nearby municipal lines. Each balloon could carry up to five people. Other smaller balloons carried fewer people and the smallest including the Eagle and the Excelsior carried only a single person. Most balloons used during the American Civil War were used on the Eastern Theater, especially during the Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days battles (from March to July 1862). On one occasion balloons were used in the Western Theater during the Battle of Island Number 10.

While balloons used in the Civil War were usually safely tethered to the ground, sometimes mishaps occurred. During the Peninsula Campaign, Union General Fitz John Porter had an unnerving experience in a balloon. Porter was one of General George B. McClellan’s closest generals. He was also interested in balloon technology and had the experience of ascending with Lowe. On April 11, 1862, during the siege of Yorktown, Virginia, Porter decided to do his own reconnaissance and ascended in a balloon.
Man with short brown hair and a beard wearing a dark blue Civil War Union uniform with brass buttons.
Major General Fitz John Porter

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To keep the aircraft under control, Professor Lowe suggested three or four tether ropes be used during the balloon’s ascent. Porter instead decided to use only one rope in order to move the balloon higher and faster. Unfortunately for Porter, the rope snapped “with the sound of a pistol” and the balloon drifted helplessly over Confederate lines. Despite the uncertainty of the situation and a few potshots taken at him by Confederate marksmen, Porter remained calm and collected and the balloon eventually drifted back to Union lines where Porter was able to make sketches of Confederate positions around Yorktown which he saw from the air. The incident disturbed General McClellan enough that he wrote his wife about the incident calling it a “terrible scare.” He went on to claim, “you may rest assured of one thing: you won’t catch me in the confounded balloon nor will I allow any other Generals to go up in it!” Even Lowe claimed, “I found it difficult to restore confidence among the officers as to the safety of this means of observation on account of this accident…but the explanations and personal ascensions I made, gradually secured a return of their favor.” Despite Lowe’s efforts, the Union Balloon Corps was disbanded in 1863.
Historic photo an air balloon flying high above 19th century homes and domed structures.
Steam balloon "The Captive" over Paris rooftops, 1878

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Ulysses S. Grant's Connections to Balloons

General Ulysses S. Grant’s experiences with balloons during the Civil War were minimal if any. While he certainly heard about their exploits in the East, they were not used in the battles he fought in the West, and the Balloon Corps was already disbanded by the time he assumed command of all the Union armies. There are only two vague accounts of General Grant dealing with balloons during the Civil War. The first was a telegraph sent to him by General Benjamin F. Butler on October 13, 1864, during the siege of Petersburg. The telegraph read, “the enemy have reinforced in front of my old line now commanded by Col. Potter who thinks they may attack him-I do not-They have been reconnoitering this evening [with] a balloon.” The second account concerned a Frenchman, Eugene Godard with the “Aeronaute de I’ Empereur.” On February 21, 1865, Mr. Godard wrote to Grant, “offering his services as a balloon ins[tructor]. Then on March 3, 1865, Lt. Colonel Adam Badeau of Grant’s staff wrote Godard “declining the offer.” Perhaps the end of the war in sight influenced this decision not to use his services.

Grant’s only documented personal experience with a balloon comes from a reporter named John W. Forney. He recounted that Grant visited a balloon, The Captive on October 10, 1878, in Paris, France during his world tour. Although Grant was escorted around the grounds “he did not ascend but was curious about the whole organization.” Forney went on to say about the event, “The projector, Gifford, left offended because the ex-president did not gush, I was a little sorry, but then Grant is not very effusive even to Frenchmen.”

American Battlefield Trust. “Civil War ballooning.”Civil War Ballooning | American Battlefield Trust (battlefields.org)

American Battlefield Trust. Balloons in the Civil War.Balloons in the Civil War | American Battlefield Trust (battlefields.org)

Papers of Ulysses S. Grant. John Y. Simon ed. Southern Illinois University Press.Volume 12 p. 308. Volume 14 p. 447 and Volume 29 p. 10.

The War of the Aeronauts pp. 181-183. “Unplanned Flight of General Fitz John Porter: April 11, 1862.Professor Thaddaeus Lowe.Thaddeus Lowe at Yorktown

Last updated: January 12, 2021