When I think about manned- hot air balloons images of the October “Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta” which started in 1972 comes to mind, but did you know that ballooning has been around for a long time?
Although the first recorded manned flight was made in a hot air balloon built by the Montgolfier brothers on November 21, 1783, I was amazed when I found out that balloons were used in the U.S. Civil War! In fact, July 16, 2011 is the 150th anniversary of manned reconnaissance balloon flights of the U.S. Civil War.
Professor T. S. C. Lowe became the father of aerial reconnaisance and successfully demonstrated the usefulness of the balloon for military purposes to Abraham Lincoln in July of 1861. Lowe met with President Abraham Lincoln on July 11, 1861, and proposed a demonstration with his own balloon, the Enterprise, from the lawn of the armory directly across the street from the White House. From a height of 500 feet (150 m) he telegraphed a message to the President describing his view of the Washington, D.C., countryside. Eventually he was chosen over other candidates to be chief aeronaut of the newly formed Union Army Balloon Corps.
Lowe (pictured on the left) is said to have been accompanied by President Lincoln the next day on a flight but this is unconfirmed.
The Union Army Balloon Corps served the Army from October 1861 until the summer of 1863.
A first in the history of warfare occured on September 24, 1861, Lowe ascended to more than 1,000 feet (305 meters) near Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, and began telegraphing intelligence on the Confederate troops located at Falls Church, Virginia, more than three miles (4.8 kilometers) away. Union guns were aimed and fired accurately at the Confederate troops without actually being able to see them.
Seven balloons in all were made for the Balloon Corps, they were: Intrepid, Constitution, United States, Washington, Eagle, Excelsior, and the original Union. The balloons ranged in size from 32,000 cubic feet (906 cubic meters) down to 15,000 cubic feet (425 cubic meters). Each had enough cable to climb 5,000 feet (1524 meters).
The balloons were constructed in Philadelphia using India silk and cotton cording. The envelopes were then varnished so that they would be leakproof and would stay inflated for up to 2 weeks.
At first the balloons of the day were inflated at municipal coke gas supply stations and were towed inflated by ground crews to the field. (Coke gas is derived from burning soft coal and contains hydrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide.) Lowe recognized the need for the development of portable hydrogen gas generators, by which the balloons could be filled in remote areas.
Hydrogen gas generators designed by Lowe, were built at the Washington Navy Yard by master joiners who fashioned them using copper plumbing and tanks which, when filled with sulfuric acid and iron filings, would yield hydrogen gas. They were designed to be loaded into box crates that could easily fit on a standard buckboard. (Usually each balloon was accompanied by two gas generators.)
It should not come to anyone’s surprise that the Confederate Army noticed the success of balloon reconnaisance and had three balloons of their own as well. Lacking the gas generators of the Union Army their first balloons were made of the Montgolfier rigid style: cotton stretched over wood framing and filled with hot smoke from fires made of oil-soaked pine cones. They were piloted by Captain John R. Bryan beginning in 1862. Two additional balloons called “Silk Dress Balloons” were constructed of silk dress fabric in 1862 but by 1863 both had been captured by Union troops.
For all its success, the Balloon Corps was never fully appreciated by the military community. They were still regarded as “break-necked carnival showmen” and none of the aeronauts had military commissions. The only ones who found any value in them were the generals whose jobs and reputations were on the line. Finally by August 1, 1863 the Balloon Corps was no longer in use.