President Abraham Lincoln observes a balloon demonstration near Washington, D.C. Both Confederate and Union armies experimented with using balloons to gather military intelligence in the early stages of the war, but the balloons proved to be dangerous and impractical for most situations.
Though balloons were not new, many felt that their military applications had yet to be realized. Even before the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861, marking the start of the Civil War, several firms approached the U.S. War Department concerning contracts for balloons. The primary figure in the Union’s experiment with balloons was Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, an inventor who had been working with hydrogen balloons for several years before the war. He had built a large craft and hoped to make a transatlantic crossing. In April 1861, he conducted trials around Cincinnati, Ohio, with the support of the Smithsonian Institution. On April 19, he took off on a flight that floated all the way to Unionville, South Carolina, where he was jailed briefly by Confederates who were convinced he was a Union spy.
Lowe became the head of the Union’s Balloon Corps in 1861 and served effectively during the Peninsular campaign of 1862. With the view provided from his balloon, he discovered that the Confederates had evacuated Yorktown, Virginia, and he provided important intelligence during the Battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia.
Lowe enjoyed a good working relationship with George McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, but experienced difficulty with McClellan’s successors, generals Ambrose Burnside and Joseph Hooker, who were not convinced that balloon observations provided accurate information. Lowe became increasingly frustrated with the army, particularly after his pay was slashed in 1863. Feeling that army commanders did not take his service seriously, Lowe resigned in the spring of 1863. The Balloon Corps was disbanded in August of that same year.
Lowe later became involved in a building a railway in California. He died there in 1913 at age 80.