America’s First Air Force: Union Aeronauts and McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, Part Three – Gaines’ Farm Station

ECW welcomes back guest author Jeff Ballard

Read Part One and Part Two.

Matthew Brady, “Professor Lowe’s military balloon near Gaines’ Farm, Virginia,” The famous photo of the Intrepid being inflated at the Gaines farm. Two of Lowe’s gas generators can be seen in the left of this photo. Later captured during the Confederate advance at Gaines’ Farm, generator Number 11 would be put on display in Richmond as a war trophy. Photograph. (Library of Congress)

The final week of May 1862 denoted the high-water mark of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign as five corps of the Army of the Potomac partially encircled Richmond. By the 23rd, both the Gaines’ Farm and the Mechanicsville stations, nine and six miles north-northeast of Richmond respectively, were operational. Both were in excellent positions to observe the coming and going around Richmond and its entrenchments including large troop movements in and out of the city. While Union troops could hear the church bells pealing, Lowe and his aeronauts watched parishioners walk to Sunday services.

East of Richmond, General Edwin Sumner’s II Corps, with two other corps, lined the northern bank of the normally placid Chickahominy River. Major General Samuel Peter Heintzelman’s III Corps and General Erasmus Keyes’ IV Corps lined the south bank. While this disposition astride the Richmond & York Railroad was necessary to defend McClellan’s supply line down the peninsula, it did not provide for the mutual support of the two wings of Sumner’s command. The Union positions were linked by a single bridge over the Chickahominy. McClellan, recognizing this weakness, ordered his engineers to construct two pontoon bridges to augment the single bridge at Seven Pines.

On the 28th, the commander of the Army of the Potomac received a telegram from an impatient Lincoln prodding him to action saying, “I think that the time is near when you must either attack Richmond or give up the job and come to the defense of Washington.”[1] Lincoln feared that Rebel reinforcements, sent to the Shenandoah Valley, would soon threaten the capital.  McClellan replied that had been his plan all along but, privately, he had no intention of doing anything before completing the new bridges.

Unusually heavy rains swept the peninsulas on the 30th and threatened to wash out the old bridge, making it “dangerous for infantry but suicidal for artillery.”[2] The Chickahominy “normally slow, sluggish stream, became a raging torrent, rising three to four feet above normal.” [3]  The swampy lowlands which bordered the river for a half-mile to a mile on either bank became completely impassible.

General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate defenders in Richmond, was being pressured by his president to not abandon the capital without a fight. Recognizing the weakness of the Union’s position, a cautious Johnston uncharacteristically elected to attack. Early on the 31st, he hurled twenty-three of his twenty-seven brigades against Heintzelman and Keyes.

From high above the Gaines’ Farm, Lowe watched the Confederate troops massing. Despite the telegraphed warning, the vicious attack on the two Union corps south of the Chickahominy pushed the Federals back toward the river. At this point, however, the Confederate attack faltered. Johnston’s vague verbal orders caused whole brigades to travel the wrong road, get lost, and generally get in one another’s way. Utter confusion reigned and nine of the attacking brigades never got into the fight.[4] Despite the Rebels’ stalled offensive, only the heroic and timely arrival of two divisions of Sumner’s corps, which the old general personally led across the tottering Grapevine Bridge, saved the day for the Union.

The next day saw troops and artillery reinforce Heintzelman and Keyes by crossing the Chickahominy by the pontoon bridge rapidly erected by Sumner’s engineers. A Union counterattack regained the ground lost the day before, despite a renewed Confederate offensive.

The result of the two-day affair was a draw and the fight to encircle the Confederate capital continued. There was little, if any, strategic benefit for the Union except regaining the ground lost on the first day. McClellan, of course, regarded the battle as a great victory, and in one sense it was. Fair Oaks gave the Army of the Potomac a desperately needed morale boost.   However, rather than exploit the limited victory and pressure Richmond further, the overly cautious McClellan set his men to digging new entrenchments to provide “a safe retreat in the event of disaster.”[5]

The losses on both sides were heavy but about even. The Federals lost approximately 5,000 and the Confederates 6,000 killed, wounded, or missing. In a fortuitous turn of events for the Confederates, General Robert E. Lee replaced Johnson as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia after Johnston was gravely wounded on the first day. For the North, the battle reinforced history’s assessment of McClellan as “always prepared for disaster and retreat but seldom seemed to know what to do with victory.”[6]

Currier & Ives illustration of the Battle of Fair Oaks. A Civil War balloon can be seen floating above the combat in the top left of this popular illustration. Credit: Library of Congress.

The Balloon Corps contributed to the Battle of Fair Oaks in several significant ways. First, the presence of Lowe’s balloons produced a great deal of confusion among the Confederate soldiers. The Intrepid, adorned with McClellan’s super-sized portrait, was undoubtedly the most unusual spectacle any Rebel had ever seen on the Civil War battlefield. Lowe proudly reflected that “a hawk hovering over the chicken yard could not have caused any more commotion than my balloons when they appeared.”[7]

Second, the demoralizing effects of the observations by Union balloons on the Rebels should not be underestimated. Without an effective countermeasure or the ability to destroy the balloons with ground fire, Confederate field commanders were forced to take drastic measures to disguise their positions. The Confederate garrison commander at Yorktown, for example, resorted to camouflaging his earthworks, dragging logs behind wagons to disguise his movements, and prohibiting cooking fires at night. Also, it was not unusual for division commanders to create dummy artillery, referred to as “Quaker guns,”[8]  in mock deference to the pacifist religious sect. The guns were constructed with fallen logs and placed in abandoned positions to give the appearance that the location was still active and fully manned.

Lowe’s contributions to the Union cause were not specific to the Battle of Fair Oaks, but to McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in general. Union aeronauts would continue to play a role until the Balloon Corps disbanded in spring the following year after the Battle of Chancellorsville.

Jeff Ballard is a historian, writer, and the Editor-in-Chief of The Saber and Scroll Journal. He has written numerous magazine and journal articles on topics in military history, American political geography, and social history. He earned his master’s degree in Military History, with Honors, from American Military University in 2015. Jeff’s thesis and the bulk of his subsequent research and writing focus on shifts in US Navy tactics and doctrine during the Guadalcanal Campaign 1942-1943. This native Californian lives in Huntington Beach with his wife Carol, son Andrew, and Chihuahua/Min-Pin mix Taco Bell.


[1] Joseph P. Cullen, The Peninsula Campaign 1862: McClellan & Lee Struggle for Richmond (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1973), 54.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 55.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 56.

[7] Charles M. Evans, War of Aeronauts: A History of Ballooning in the Civil War (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002), 191.

[8] Ibid., 113.

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