In the annals of flight, the Civil War once again established many firsts. Aerial Warfare was new to Americans, but quickly caught on in the early days of the War.
The first air balloon was flown in London, England in 1784, only seventy-seven years before the Civil War. On that day more than 100,000 people gathered to watch this amazing sight as the balloon, piloted by Vincent Lunardi, lasting one hour and forty minutes covering a total of 13 miles.
Then in 1785 Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jefferies crossed the English Channel in a hot air balloon carrying a letter – becoming the first air mail delivery!
A few years later in 1797, a French balloonist and adventurer (more like a dare-devil!) A. J. Garnerin, made the first parachute jump from a gas balloon dropping from the dizzying height of 3000 feet!
On June 8, 1861 in Washington, DC, a giant gas balloon, the Enterprise, holding 20,000 cubic feet of the vaporous substance, rose to a height of 500 feet, piloted by one Dr. Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe. For a number of years Dr. Lowe had promised to sail across the Atlantic Ocean but had not managed to do so as yet. On this day, however, he had attached as a sort of tether, a thin wire wrapped in green silk which was reeled out from a telegraph station below. A message was transmitted by Dr. Lowe and delivered to President Lincoln in the White House. “Sir: This point of observation commands an area nearly 50 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.” Signed, TSC Lowe. Some reporters at the time claim that Lincoln was taken up in the balloon, but this has never been validated.
The first balloon purchased for the American military was built by John Wise of Lancaster, Pennsylvania for $850. Mr. Wise was sponsored by the grandson of Benjamin Franklin, Major Hartman Bache. He was the first to suggest that the balloon be used for the military. Unfortunately, as the gas bag was being navigated toward the battle of Manassas (Bull Run) it became fouled in the trees, needing much repair before being brought into service on the front lines.
Perhaps the classic story of all is regarding John LaMountain of Troy, New York who had made quite a name for himself prior to the War by sailing his balloon from Saint Louis to New York 1,100 miles in the unheard of time of twenty hours! Remember! The move westward had not hit its peak yet. It took wagons weeks, even months to cover this same distance.
But what sets Mr. LaMountain apart from other adventurist balloonists was a maneuver he conducted which set in motion a system we use fully in our Navy today. He tied his balloon to the armed transport Fanny from which he rose above the waters of the Chesapeake to spy on the Confederate forces, August 1, 1861. He had unknowingly created the first aircraft carrier! A short time later he made a night launch for aerial reconnaissance, only this time it was tied to a tug. As he viewed Fortress Monroe in the dark, he counted the number of tent lights, thus estimating the enemy’s troop strength. Confederate General PGT Beauregard initiated the first “black outs” by requiring camp fires and lanterns to be covered or dimmed when enemy balloons were operating in the area.
A “Balloon Corps” for the U.S. Army was established by Dr. Lowe with a total of six hydrogen-filled balloons operated by only seven trained balloonists. The Confederate forces did not appreciate being spied upon by these aerial fliers, so they quickly learned to train their guns on the slow moving and cumbersome balloons. Even artillery fire was aimed at these gas bags.
Speaking of artillery, some balloonists became adept at calling in very accurate artillery fire on enemy positions, all the while perched high above the field of battle.
During the Civil War it was suggested that aerial photographs be taken, but this was never enacted upon.
Confederate forces eventually got into the hot air balloon game, but were never very effective in its use.
The Army Balloon Corps was disbanded in June of 1863.
The use of balloons in warfare may have been short-lived, but it certainly opened a door of opportunity and expansion into what has been developed in today’s technological wizardry in our supersonic aircraft. We’ve come a long way from the gas bags of 150 years ago!