The United States Balloon Corps in Action in Northern Virginia during the Civil War

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The United States Balloon Corps in Action in Northern Virginia during the Civil War


Military use of balloons for aerial reconnaissance


The early history of the US Balloon Corp


June Robinson


Arlington Historical Magazine


Arlington Historical Society


Public Domain

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By June Robinson

The first use of balloons for military purposes in the United States was made at Falls Church, Virginia, on June 23, 1861, by Thaddeus Sobieski Coulincourt Lowe at the direction of Captain Amie! Weeks Whipple of the Topographical Engineers Corps. 1 Professor Lowe, one of the best-known balloonists in the country, had come to Washington earlier that month to persuade the government of the advantages of the
use of aeronautical services in the war that had just begun. With the encouragement of Joseph Henry, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, whose scientific interests had been aroused by Lowe's earlier efforts to demonstrate the possibility of transatlantic balloon travel, Lowe came to Washington
with the balloon Enterprise in which he had just completed a voyage from Cincinnati, Ohio to South Carolina, a distance of 900 miles, in nine hours. In the capital he inflated the Enterprise with illuminating gas from one of the mains in the Armory and made tethered ascensions from the Armory grounds, from the Smithsonian grounds, and in front of the Executive Mansion. At one point telegraph operator Herbert Robinson went up with him, and using a direct wire to the ground, tapped out a message to President Lincoln:

Balloon Enterprise
Washington, D.C.
June 18, 1861
To the President of the United States:
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 and in acknowledging indebtedness for your
encouragement for the opportunity of demonstrating the availability of
the science of aeronautics in the service of the country.
T.S.C. Lowe

A message from Mr. Lincoln waited for Lowe when he reached the ground. He was requested to call on the President that evening to discuss further plans for a balloon corps.

Earlier Life and Experiences

Thaddeus S.C. Lowe (August 20, 1832-January 16, 1913) was born in Jefferson Mills, New Hampshire, to Clovis and Alpha (Green) Lowe. His early schooling was limited to standard grammar school classes, but he took special interest in botany, chemistry, and geology, reading as much as he could on these topics. He became interested in flight and launched his own first flying experiment at the age of sixteen. Satisfied with preliminary efforts, he built a very large structure with several kites
fastened together. A cage was attached between them and colored lanterns affixed to each side. On a dark, windy night, Lowe picked up a friendly big black tomcat which went unsuspectingly into the cage and was sent aloft as his first passenger. The white and green lights blinked as the kite tossed in the night sky and at midnight - several hours later- when the kite was pulled in, the cage was opened and the cat, eyes wide open and fur on end, streaked out the door and disappeared into the night, never to be seen again. Lowe decided he would never frighten an animal that way again.

Several years later Lowe became an assistant to a travelling lecturer giving talks and doing chemical experiments as part of a performance. At the age of twenty, he purchased his own portable laboratory and went on the tour circuit himself, adopting the title '' Professor of Chemistry.' ' His first balloons, small hydrogen aerostats used in the demonstrations, were purchased during this period.

By the time he was twenty-seven, Lowe had had considerable experience with balloons. He had made a series of short unpublicized ascensions and a series of public flights in Ottawa, Canada, in celebration of the laying of the first transatlantic cable in 1858. That summer he released small hydrogen balloons from his basket during a flight near Portland, Maine. Several of these were discovered 500 to 600 miles at sea.
The possibility that they could have crossed the Atlantic in the upper air currents if they had been large enough interested him. He proposed the idea of a balloon large enough to cross the Atlantic, supporting an airship capable of transporting men and freight. In New York City the proposal drew backers and construction was begun on the City of New York. When filled with gas, the balloon would lift twenty tons in weight. The envelope alone weighed two and a quarter tons. Adventurous citizens signed up for the maiden voyage. Efforts to inflate the grand balloon failed because the city could not generate enough gas and interest waned. Encouraged by friendly new backers and the offer of enough gas, Lowe moved his balloon and airship to Philadelphia, renamed it the Great Western and started again. A year of incomplete
inflation took its toll and on September 8, 1860, the Great Western burst.

Lowe was encouraged by the aid and support of some of the most eminent scientists in the country and returned to his original backers with a plan for an improved airship. They did not discourage him, but suggested that he consult Joseph Henry, who was considered the country's unofficial chief scientist.
Although he received a memorial inscribed with the names of fifteen distinguished men Henry did not recommend appropriation of any Smithsonian funds in the balloon experiments, but did make the following statement as a result of an investigation. Lowe later quoted the statement as support for his own theories about upper air currents:

It has been fully established by continuous observations collected at
this Institution for ten years, from every part of the United States, that, as
a general rule, all the meteorological phenomena advance from west to
east, and that the higher clouds always move eastwardly. We are,
therefore, from abundant observation, as well as from theoretical
considerations, enabled to state with confidence that on a given day,
whatever may be the direction of the wind at the surface of the earth, a
balloon elevated sufficiently high would be carried easterly by the
prevailing current in the upper or rather middle region of the atmosphere .

I do not hesitate, therefore, to say that, provided a balloon can be
constructed of sufficient size and of sufficient permeability to gas, in
order that it might maintain a high elevation for a sufficient length of
time, it would be wafted across the Atlantic. I would not, however,
advise that the first experiment of this character be made across the
ocean, but that the feasibility of the project should be thoroughly tested
and experience accumulated by voyages over the interior of our
continent. 9
Lowe was not the first balloonist in the United States to propose extensive flights.
Following the development of the balloon in France in 1783, a number of adventurous
Americans had, by the 1820s, experimented with building and flying balloons. In
1822, in the name of a Philadelphia mathematician, James Bennett, Congressman
Milnor of that state had petitioned Congress for a forty year monopoly ''for the right
of steering flying machines through that portion of the earth's atmosphere which
passes over the United States, or so far as their jurisdiction may extend.'' The petition
was referred to a special committee, tabled, and forgotten. 10 One of the most widely
known American balloonists, John Wise, had made his first public announcement of
a proposed transoceanic flight in June, 1843. Other active balloonists who were later
to compete with Lowe for government preference during the Civil War included John
LaMountain and James Allen. 11
Lowe, encouraged by Henry's advice, went to Washington to meet him. Henry
welcomed the professor and suggested that a long test flight from an inland city would
help to erase doubts in the minds of the public as to the feasibility of an aerial voyage
to Europe. Cincinnati was chosen as the western city and Lowe packed one of his
·larger balloons, the Enterprise, for the attempt. In Cincinnati he gained support from
Murat Halstead, editor of the Cincinnati Daily Commercial. His flight was publicized
and backers offered financial support. Lowe gave a series of public lectures on
Inflation was begun the night of April 19, 1861, only seven days after the attack on
Fort Sumter in South Carolina. With conditions just right, he had cast off at 4:00 A.M.
still wearing the top hat and frock coat he had worn to a farewell dinner party. Nine
hours later the Enterprise settled down on a farm near Unionville, South Carolina. 12
Although public suspicions that he was a Union spy carrying despatches to the North
were raised, he was recognized by a number of scientific and educated men who knew
of his previous work and he was furnished with a passport by the mayor of Columbia,
South Carolina, on April 22, 1861, to enable him to return with the balloon to

THIS IS TO CERTIFY, that Prof. T.S.C. Lowe, now accidentally in our midst, is a gentleman of integrity and high scientific attainments, and I bespeake for him the courtesies of all with whom he may come in contact, and trust that this letter, to which I have affixed the seal of the City of
Columbia, S. C., will answer as a passport for him through the Confederate States of North America.
(Signed) W.H. Boatright, Mayor 13

It took four days, travelling by train only in daylight hours, to return to Cincinnati.
There, in conversation with Murat Halstead and other civic leaders, Lowe decided to
put the transatlantic voyage plan aside, raise some funds, and offer his services to the
government. In Lowe's words: ·
From what seen, I was fully convinced the country was facing a severe
struggle and patriotism getting the better of my desire to attempt a
crossing of the Atlantic, I decided to offer my services to the government.
I had a long talk with Mr. Potter and Mr. Halstead and they concurred in
this view.
I hastened to Washington but found that several other aeronauts were
already on the scene and that I would have competitors in my desire to
form an aeronautic corps for the army.
At this period, ballooning was looked on by the public at large as an
expression of the showman's art and indeed with a rare exception here
and there , balloonists themselves looked no higher so that it was
extremely difficult to impress even those in power, that ballooning
belonged to the realm of science and to be of any benefit, must be handled
scientifically. This was the only claim I could lay to superiority but it
seemed almost impossible to get a hearing.
Other balloonists had had the same idea. James Allen , a New England aeronaut, was
already in Washington applying for an army position. An army major contacted John
Wise about constructing a balloon that would be suitable for reconnaissance
purposes. John LaMountain sent a petition signed by thirty-three citizens of Troy,
New York, testifying to his upright character, ability and experience. 15
The Balloon Corps
Lowe's friends, meanwhile, had contacted Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P.
Chase and asked the administration to consider Lowe. On his arrival in the capital he
met with Joseph Henry, who urged him to call on Chase and introduced him to
Secretary of War Simon Cameron. Henry also sent a very strong message of support,
claiming that Mr. Lowe's balloon would retain its charge for several days under
normal circumstances; that in an inflated condition it could be towed by a few men
along an ordinary road or over fields in calm weather; that it could be tethered in the
air on a calm day to a height sufficient to observe the country on a twenty mile radius;
and that telegrams could be sent from the balloon to the quarters of the commanding
President Lincoln met with Lowe the evening of the telegraph experiment and gave
him a note to General Scott, urging the general to meet with Lowe. Lowe was
rebuffed by the general - too busy and preoccupied to meet with him, even at the
request of the commander-in-chief. A few hours later, when the matter was reported
to the president, Lincoln appeared with Lowe at the general's doorstep and Lowe had
his hearing. 17
That evening Lowe received a telegram from Captain Whipple directing him to fill
the balloon and to bring it and the telegraphic equipment tools to Arlington.


June Robinson, “The United States Balloon Corps in Action in Northern Virginia during the Civil War,” Mapping the Civil War in Arlington, accessed July 13, 2024,

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