Imaginative, colorful, amusing, all words that come to mind when you think of hot air balloons. In fact, you may struggle to imagine such a thing striking fear in a soldier’s heart. But, these very balloons were a scary site for a few years of the Civil War. In the course of the war, both the Union and Confederate armies used balloons for locating enemy forces and monitoring their movements.

On April 19, 1861, just as the Civil War began, Thaddeus Lowe launched his small hot air balloon the Enterprise from Cincinnati. Lowe’s bold plan was to fly east 500 miles and land in Washington, perhaps on the lawn of the White House. He wanted to offer his services to the Union, and beat out any rivals trying to accomplish the same. Unfortunately, the rebellious wind sent him much farther south, touching down in the heart of the seceded state of South Carolina.

Thaddeus Lowe, 1865. Photo Courtesy: Library of Congress

The Southern farmers were not impressed by his flying skills or his Yankee accent. Lowe was arrested as a spy for supposedly carrying dispatches from the Union army. He showed them the “dispatches” were actually editions of the Cincinnati Daily Commerce, and thus escaped a traitor’s death. Thankful to be alive, Lowe hurried north to Washington, with his balloon equipment in packing cases. Here the Union army was preparing to invade rebel Virginia, and troops were skirmishing across the Potomac River near Arlington. The new commander, Gen. George McClellan, like Abraham Lincoln, loved advanced technology and desired its use in the war. The plan was to show Lincoln how the Enterprise could carry up telegraph equipment and a wire, and send direct aerial observations to a commander on the ground.

Prof. Lowe ascending in the Intrepid to observe the Battle of Fair Oaks


On, June 16, 1861, Lowe soared 500 feet above Constitution Mall, with a telegraph key and an excited 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 broadcast 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

Lowe succeeded in his mission. Lincoln to form an official Military Aeronautics Corps within the Union Army. Lowe received Union funds to build more balloons. His fleet eventually consisted of 8 military balloons: 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.

Lowe observes from Intrepid at the Battle of Fair Oaks in 1862.
Photo courtesy: Smithsonian Archives

On Sept. 24, Lowe rose in the Union to more than a thousand feet near Arlington, and began telegraphing information on the Confederate troops located at Falls Church, Va., more than 3 miles away. Union guns were then fired accurately on the Confederate army without actually being able to see them. This event was the first time in warfare that destruction could be delivered to a distant and invisible enemy.

From his balloons, Lowe witnessed a new kind of fighting. Rapid, violent, passionate, and patriotic (on both sides), it was based on a swift exchange of attack and counterattack. It produced mass fatalities never before seen in American history. Lowe rarely described the human loss that he saw. Instead, he limited reports to tactical information, like someone observ­ing the moves in a vast, impersonal strategy game. But the obvious 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.”

A sketch made of Confederate troop positions as seen from a Lowe balloon in 1861.
Photo courtesy: National Air and Space Museum

Some historians claim that, although balloon observations contributed to battle victories, the Union’s commanding generals didn’t use the information to their full advantage. Vague reports on Robert E. Lee’s movements issued from the Intrepid during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign only served to panic General McClellan. The general withdrew his vastly superior forces from Richmond, Virginia, rather than attacking the poorly defended Confederate capital. Had McClellan attacked, the war might have ended 3 years sooner and saved tens of thousands of lives.

After McClellan was relieved of his command, Ulysses S. Grant took over. Grant, preferring to rely more on slow destruction than on intelligence, cut its funding and thus its effectiveness. Lowe was accused of financial impropriety, and his pay was reduced. Lowe resigned from the balloon corps on May 8, 1863. By August, the Union balloon corps was disbanded. Although, not overly successful the balloon corps definitely opened up a new side to military planning and intelligence.