America’s First Air Force: Union Aeronauts and McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, Part Four – Davis, Lee, and Longstreet Were Standing in a Field

ECW welcomes back guest author Jeff Ballard

Read Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

“Prof. T.S.C. Lowe, Civil War balloonist,” [Between 1861 and 1865] Photograph, Library of Congress.
Serving as an airborne sentry was the first, and perhaps the most obvious role of the balloon on the battlefield and Lowe’s balloons gave McClellan unparalleled visibility. At an altitude of 1000 feet, and with good weather, observers could see more than fifteen miles.[1] The Balloon Corps first deployed to Fort Monroe on March 15, 1862, to watch for the reportedly indestructible ironclad, the CSS Virginia. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles feared Virginia might wreak havoc on Union shipping in Hampton Roads or shell Federal positions on the James and York Rivers. The Balloon Corps then observed the Siege of Yorktown (April 5-May 4) and the Battle of Williamsburg (May 5), before establishing the Gaines’ Farm station.   With telegraph train in tow, Lowe transmitted aerial reporting to McClellan’s headquarters and the War Department in Washington D.C. in near real-time. As part of McClellan’s retreat down the peninsula, after the ensuing Seven Days Battles, the George Washington Parke-Custis, loaded with four Army wagons and two gas generators, towed the fully inflated balloons downriver to keep an eye out for pursuing Rebels.[2]

The Balloon Corps also provided McClellan with an unprecedented intelligence gathering capability and was used throughout the campaign. During periods of heavy contact, aeronauts “provided reports of [their] observations at fifteen-minute intervals throughout the day,” and “pictures were taken from the air on several occasions by Lowe himself.”[3]

Lowe and Brigadier General Fitz-John Porter, of McClellan’s staff, made regular ascents to count cooking fires and monitor road traffic in and out of Richmond.[4] On May 22, Lowe inflated his Excelsior and began taking officers up to look at earthworks surrounding Richmond. Even though the area was heavily wooded, maps of Rebel positions and fortifications were made and continually updated with new information.”[5]

Lowe’s round-the-clock observations of the Confederate works at the Siege of Yorktown cast doubt on the legendary detective, Allan Pinkerton, who estimated that there were 100,000 Rebel troops there.[6] Balloon observers discovered that the Confederates had abandoned the works. Later that day Union troops found the gun emplacement occupied by felled logs painted black, disguising the fact that the real field pieces had been withdrawn.[7]

Balloon Corps aeronauts on the Peninsula acted as spotters, controlling indirect artillery fire from Federal artillery. Lowe adjusted range and deflection and assessed bomb damage for Union guns using a complex series of flags of his own invention. These directed bombardments were the first time in the history of warfare that an “accurate artillery barrage was conducted at an enemy that could not be seen by the gunners on the ground.”[8]

Lowe, recalling the events of September 24, 1862, said “… I could very well discern a distinguished group of officials in a field beyond the tall timber and directed fire upon them.” General James Longstreet identified these distinguished officials in his diary entry of the same day: “The Federals doubtless had no idea that the Confederate President [Jefferson Davis], commanding general [Lee], and division commanders were receiving a point-blank shot from their batteries.”[9] Fortunately for the Confederacy, none of these men were injured.

Lowe’s most important innovation, however, was air-to-ground telegraph communications. Aloft in Intrepid, Lowe’s report on the concentration of troops allowed McClellan to issue a timely warning to his commanders. In response to that order, Sumner’s engineers redoubled their efforts and completed the second bridge across the Chickahominy. The same bridges which allowed the II Corps to rush to the support of Heintzelman and Keyes’ beleaguered troops, turning the tide of battle for the Union.

As reports of the first day’s battle reached Washington, via telegraph train, “Lincoln was very blue…when news came of the attack of the left-wing on the Chickahominy but got better the next day when the Balloon-man telegraphed every few minutes how General Kearny was driving back the foe and recovering the lost ground.[10] More than likely “Lowe’s observations alone saved the Army of the Potomac from a major defeat at the battle of Fair Oaks.” [11]

On June 26, the balloon station at Mechanicsville was nearly overrun. Aeronaut John Allen, while at altitude over the battlefield, witnessed the Confederate flanking maneuver that threatened the Union line. Realizing his peril, Allen rapidly descended and escaped with all equipment and personnel.

Despite the Balloon Corps’ successes at Fair Oaks, the Union Army was forced to retreat from the Peninsula in July. Lowe was absent much of the summer of 1862 as his health deteriorated. His subordinates lacked their chief’s drive and initiative and consequently, a period of relative inactivity ensued. But Lowe had every reason to believe that the Corps would resume its normal operations in the 1863 campaign.[12] This was not to be, however.

On November 5, 1862, Lincoln relieved McClellan for his poor performance at Antietam, and General Burnside was elevated to Commanding General.  McClellan’s dismissal removed Lowe’s biggest supporter among general officers of the army.[13] Without his sponsorship, Lowe and the Balloon Corps became enmeshed in a tangle of red tape with the army which was less and less interested in aeronautics.

Lowe was placed under the command of Cyrus B. Comstock of the Topographical Engineers. Comstock and Lowe never came to a position of mutual agreement and respect. The final straw came when the new chief laid out a system of strict controls where Lowe had previously enjoyed almost absolute freedom of action. Lowe, however, felt duty-bound to withhold his resignation until after the looming battle between the two great armies in the spring of 1863.

The Balloon Corps participated in the Battle of Chancellorsville keeping two balloons aloft during the opening and closing phases of the battle.[14] Shortly thereafter the increasingly disheartened Lowe resigned citing poor health. The Balloon Corps withdrew to the relative safety of the capital and was disbanded, thus ending military aeronautics in the Civil War.

Thaddeus Lowe’s ambitious experiments in aeronautics during the American Civil War changed military science forever. All future notable conflicts in world history would have an airborne component. However, while no further balloon reconnaissance occurred during the war “the novel experiment had attracted widespread attention around the world.”[15]

As the Civil War came to its end, Lowe was contacted by Brazil’s King Dom Pedro II who read reports of the Balloon Corps’ exploits. While Lowe declined his invitation to travel to South America to join Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay in the War of the Triple Alliance against Paraguay (1864–70), Ezra Allen, John Allen’s brother, accepted. For years thereafter, Lowe received lengthy reports of Allen’s glorious Brazilian adventures, but scholars of that war contend that Allen’s contribution amounted to “little more than 14 ascents of about 50 feet and all were abandoned when the Paraguayans used crude smoke screens to good effect.”[16]

More significant, however, was the impression the U.S. Balloon Corps operations left on the twenty-five-year-old German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, a foreign military observer of the Army of the Potomac. Once retired from the German army, von Zeppelin turned his attention towards advancing airship design. Years of experimentation created technology that was leaps and bounds ahead of the simple balloons of the Civil War. Perhaps Zeppelin’s most significant contribution to airship design was surrounding the gas bag of a balloon with a rigid airframe creating a vehicle suitable for commercial use.

Between 1909 and 1914 his airships made 1600 flights in Europe, carrying over 37,000 passengers without incident.[17] With the outbreak of the First World War, Zeppelin’s squadrons of dirigibles had a far more sinister purpose and delivered the first aerial bombardment on civilian targets, including the first incendiary bombs on London (1915).  The Hindenburg incident in 1937 signaled the end of the golden age of airships and their military use was limited to tethered air defense balloons, convoy protection, and submarine hunting.

While historians can debate the impact Thaddeus Lowe had on the outcome of the Civil War, what cannot be debated is that the Balloon Corps’ exploits marked the first time the U.S. military attempted flight. The concept of aerial observation, whether by drone, aircraft or satellite remains a critical consideration on the modern battlefield.

Lowe died on January 16, 1913, in Pasadena, California, U.S. at the age of 80, after years of failing health.

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] Dr. James L. Green, “Civil War Ballooning During the Seven Days Campaign” Civil War Trust. [accessed: July 15, 2013].

[2] Allan W. Howey, “War of the Aeronauts: The History of Ballooning in the Civil War,” Air & Space Power Journal 17. no. 3 (Fall 2003): 122.

[3] Duane J. Squires, “Aeronautics in the Civil War” The American Historical Review 42, no. 4 (Jul., 1937), 652-669. [accessed: April 17, 2022], 662.

[4] Charles M. Evans, War of Aeronauts: A History of Ballooning in the Civil War (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002), 179.

[5] Green.

[6] Howey, 122.

[7] Evans, 113.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 114.

[10] Squires, 663.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 664.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 666.

[15] Evans, 296.

[16] Ibid., 298.

[17] Ibid., 302.

4 Responses to America’s First Air Force: Union Aeronauts and McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, Part Four – Davis, Lee, and Longstreet Were Standing in a Field

  1. thanks for this terrific great series … you’ve resurrected what most of us amateur historians regard as a footnote during the Penisula Campaign to its right place in military history … Lowe was really THE pioneer in modern intel gathering — from obeservation ballons in WWI over the trenches, to spotter aircraft in WWII and Vietnam, and satelitte and drone imagery in OIF/OEF, Lowe had the big idea …thanks again.

  2. Thanks for this wonderful series on the Balloon Corps. It seems to have been very helpful, I am surprised that the Union stopped it’s use.

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