Union Balloon Corps: Part 3

Scetch of the Seven Days Battles at Malvern Hill

(Part 1 and Part 2 are available for reference.)

The Union Balloon Corps received little recognition for its successes, and many in the military Sevens Days Battles considered them nothing more than entertainment. The conclusion of the Seven Days Battles, ended the Union’s Peninsula campaign. Thaddeus Lowe contracted malaria as he followed the battle and was forced to return Washington D.C. He returned over a month later to find that the army had all but demolished his Balloon Corps. All of his wagons, mules, and equipment had been returned to the Army Quartermaster and Lowe was ordered to join the forces near Sharpsburg, MD. The Confederates were in retreat by the time Lowe reached the battlefield. General McClellan had been replaced by Ambrose Burnside, who would eventually send Lowe and his balloons to participate in the Battle of Fredericksburg.

A few months later Burnside was replaced by “Fighting” Joe Hooker. Hooker and his fellow officers had little respect for the hot-air balloons, and the few men who did respect the Balloon Corps weren’t in commanding positions. To make matters worse, not one of Lowe’s men ever received a military commission – meaning that if captured they would be treated as civilian spies, a crime that was punishable by death.

Photo of James Allen, member of the Union Balloon Corps

The Balloon Corps was eventually assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers, which was led by Captain Cyrus B. Comstock. Lowe resigned and returned to the private sector after Comstock slashed his daily pay from $10 (in gold) to $3. The Allen brothers James and Ezra, took over the Balloon Corps when Lowe left, but the company was out of service by August of 1863.

Lowe continued his work with the balloons in the years to come, cultivating his reputation as an aeronaut and a spy both at home and abroad. By 1864, he had been offered a Major-General position with the Brazilian Army (which at the time was at war with Paraguay). He turned the offer down.

The United States Army Signal Corps established a War Balloon Company in 1893 at Fort Riley Kansas. Only two balloons were used – the General Myer from France (which deteriorated) and its silk replacement Santiago. The silk balloon saw limited use in 1989 during the Spanish American War.

The Balloon Corps proved to be useful on many an occasion, unfortunately though for Lowe many higher ups did not fully appreciate the work, efforts, and benefits of the corps. Lowe saw the potential that this new technology could have. Granted by today’s standards of unmanned drones and planes, it may seem hard to believe, but these formative “eyes in the sky” paved the way for future air-war mechanisms.

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One Response to Union Balloon Corps: Part 3

  1. Phil W says:

    Was the balloon Corps deactivated in Aug 1863 or prior to Gettysburg, Jul 1, 1863. Typo – image a sketch?

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