After thoroughly impressing President Lincoln with the ability to gather and transmit intelligence from the air, Thaddeus Lowe was granted funding to start producing hot-air balloons for the Union Army. He named the first balloon Union.
Lowe first began reporting on Confederate movements on September 24th, 1861. From nearly 1,000 feet above the ground, he was able to spy on troops near Falls Church, VA. He
provided the Northern Army with the information they needed to fire on the enemy without actually seeing them. This was the first time in history such a feat had been accomplished. General George B. McClellan, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, quickly realized the balloons’ potential and established the Union Balloon Corps.
It wasn’t long before others started taking notice, and War Secretary Simon Cameron asked Lowe to construct a fleet of seven balloons. In addition to his original airship Union, the fleet included Intrepid, Constitution, United States, Washington, Eagle, and Excelsior. The balloons varied in size, but each was able to float 1,000 feet above the ground. They all required gas for inflation, but Washington D.C. was full of hot air – so to speak – and the balloons were up and running in no time.
War is not a stationary event, and the Balloon Corps struggled to efficiently transport and inflate the airships where they were needed. Lowe solved this problem by inventing a container that would enable the Union Army to transport the gas as it moved from location to location. The container was a copper-lined wooden tank mounted on a wagon
and filled with water and iron filings. All they had to do was add sulfuric acid to the mix and they had the hydrogen gas they needed to inflate the balloons. Twelve such wagons were built to service the fleet.
The Union Balloon Corps played a vital role during the Peninsula Campaign, with Lowe providing valuable information on enemy troop positions and movements throughout the battle of Fair Oaks, VA. Lowe established two balloon camps – one on the north side of the river near Gaines’ Farm and another near Mechanicsville, VA. On May 29th, 1862, Lowe reported a mass of Confederate forces to the left of New Bridge and in front of the Fair Oaks train station. Heavy winds and rains prevented traditional scouts from gathering intelligence. Washington and Intrepid were launched by noon on the 31st. From his vantage point in the sky, Lowe could see Confederate troops moving into battle formation. This information was transmitted to McClellan, who continued to receive a steady stream of information in the days to follow.
Perhaps the most important of the Balloon Corps’ observations involved General Samuel P. Heintzelman’s corps and a small contingent of Confederates, when Heintzelman and his men crossed the river and started to move towards Richmond. McClellan believed the Confederate action was a feint, but as Lowe informed him, the Confederates were actually making a move against Heintzelman and his men. The river’s bridges were inaccessible due to the heavy rains and Lowe could easily see the predicament Heintzelman was in. He sent word to McClellan, recommending the immediate repair of the New Bridge and asking that reinforcements be sent to Heintzelman. McClellan immediately dispatched men to repair the bridge and to help Heintzelman. Count De Joinville, who witnessed that day’s events, would later say to Lowe, “You, sir, have saved the day!”