Balloon Operations in the Peninsula Campaign

By Command Sergeant Major James Clifford, USA-Ret.

On 19 April 1861, just seven days after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, a showman determined to be the first balloonist to fly over the Atlantic Ocean took off on a test flight from Cincinnati, Ohio. Professor Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe aimed to test the westerly winds in an effort to prove that transatlantic flight was possible. Lowe was not a professor in any academic or professional sense. At that time, showmen such as Lowe cultivated the myth that they were somehow instructing the public on some scientific level. Hence they enjoyed the popular title of professor. His nine-hour flight took him southeast of Cincinnati into the recently established Confederacy. Early the next morning, local citizens were amazed to see the 50-foot tall, 20,000 cubic foot balloon Enterprise descending from the heavens near Unionville, South Carolina.

Once they got over their fear and amazement, the citizens of Unionville seized Lowe under suspicion of being a Union spy. He was interrogated and threatened with prison. Fortunately, a local hotelkeeper was acquainted with Lowe and convinced the authorities that he was not a spy. Eventually, Lowe was released, and he and his balloon were put aboard a northbound train. Later, Lowe would boast of being the first prisoner of war of the Confederacy.

After a brief return to Ohio, Lowe traveled to Washington, D.C., which was gripped by hysteria as war seemed imminent. Like many other scientists, inventors, innovators, and crackpots, Lowe hoped to gain the interest of the government. While other balloonists were angling for the government’s attention, Lowe was the first to gain the trust of President Abraham Lincoln. On 17 June 1861, while in Washington, Lowe ascended in the Enterprise, accompanied by representatives of the American Telegraph Company. From a height of 500 feet, Lowe telegraphed Lincoln and assured him that from that altitude, his point of observation commanded an area of nearly fifty miles in any direction.

While this experiment appeared as a stunt to many, it hooked Lincoln on the usefulness of balloons. For the rest of the evening the Enterprise remained tethered on the south lawn of the White House. On 19 June 1861, a story in the Boston Transcript described Lowe’s ascent in the following terms: “A balloon is now floating nearly over the President’s house. The plan of sending telegraphic messages is found to work admirably.”

With the encouragement of Lincoln, the War Department began a program to build several balloons. The first military balloon was the 25,000 cubic foot Union, launched in August 1861. After the Bull Run debacle, fear in Washington ran high. Lowe’s daily ascensions eased the minds of soldiers and civilians alike. In September, Lowe, now an official member of MG George B. McClellan’s staff, used the Union to direct artillery fire on Confederate positions in Falls Church, Virginia, the first use of a balloon in military operations.

By the end of 1861, there were seven military balloons in existence. Each had three or four 5,000-foot reels of cable. Oxy-hydrogen searchlights with eight-inch reflectors and colored flares were affixed to each balloon for use during night ascensions.

Thaddeus Lowe demonstrates his balloon during the battle of Fair Oaks, in June 1862. (National Archives)
Thaddeus Lowe demonstrates his balloon during the battle of Fair Oaks, in June 1862. (National Archives)

As McClellan prepared to move his army for the Peninsula campaign, he ordered that a balloon be sent to MG John Wool at Fort Monroe, Virginia, where the Confederate ironclad Virginia was prowling the nearby waters. The mission of the balloon was to observe the ironclad and gather information not attainable by other means. One of Lowe’s aeronauts, Ebenezer Seaver, took the balloon Constitution to Fort Monroe on 15 March 1862. Seaver took the balloon up several times but saw no trace of the Virginia or any Confederate activity nearby. Soon Lowe’s entire organization was on the Peninsula with the Army of the Potomac.

The organization, unofficially referred to as the Balloon Corps, was placed under the command of the Chief Topographical Engineer of the Army. Essentially a civilian organization, it received no real support from the Army for men or equipment. Without military status the Balloon Corps was subject to confusion and jealousies. Lowe had to fight for everything during the existence of the corps. In addition to personnel, the corps needed wagons, tentage, horses, and forage to operate. The Quartermaster Department refused to cooperate in supplying Lowe. Anything Lowe procured was through the cooperation of local commanders and was subject to recall, as the mission required.

Lowe repeatedly had to fight to get and keep ground crews. Commanders naturally demanded that their soldiers be returned as their regiments moved out of the area. Lowe struggled to maintain trained ground crews to operate the balloons. Local commanders that provided soldiers seldom appreciated the complicated nature of these tasks.

During the entire war there were very few trained aeronauts in any theater. The greatest number in the field at any one time was seven. Only a few soldier/specialists were assigned to Lowe. The rest were additional duty soldiers. The trained specialists included one man to varnish the envelopes, two generator assistants, one repairman, one machinist, and one permanent orderly.

Only a few enlisted soldiers are known to have been assigned to Lowe during the Peninsula campaign. CPL James Starkweather, a soldier from the 19th Massachusetts Infantry, was a sailmaker before the war, making him skilled in balloon and netting repairs. PVT William A. Hodges came from the 14th New York Infantry. PVTs Albert Trunbull, W.H. Welch, James F. Case, Robert Wardell, and Francis Barrington were all from the 22d New York Infantry. SGT Charles F. Eaton was also from the 22d and served under Lowe from September 1861 until he died of typhoid fever in May 1862. Lowe’s crews were rounded out with PVTs John H. Hall, Lawrence M. Chickey, and George W. Fisher of the 29th Massachusetts Infantry. BG George W. Morrell detailed an enlisted draftsman by the name of SGT William Bancroft from the 4th Michigan Infantry to Lowe. He made ascensions in the balloons and produced aerial maps. These few soldiers formed the core of Lowe’s organization.

Enlisted soldiers of the Balloon Corps wore a special insignia in the form of a cap ornament of metal in the shape of a balloon, with the letters “BC” surmounted on it. Civilians of the balloon corps wore whatever clothes were suitable for the field. Lowe himself wore semi-military dress consisting of trousers stuffed into high riding boots, a dark coat, and a black slouch hat.

An especially disturbing problem for Lowe was to how to pay his civilian aeronauts. They frequently went unpaid for long periods. Two aeronauts, Ebenezer Seaver and Ebenezer Mason refused to work until their long overdue salaries were paid. Aeronaut John Steiner complained that he had plenty of everything except money. Eventually he left the corps because he did not get paid.

With the balloons on the Peninsula, Lowe’s activities were under the tactical direction of MG McClellan. He directed each ascent and the information gleaned from them went directly to him. After the fighting at Yorktown, command was transferred to BG Andrew A. Humphreys, Chief Topographical Engineer of the Army of the Potomac.

Each flight near Yorktown was an adventure. Civilian balloon flights were fraught with danger by themselves; military balloon flights magnified that danger. Occasionally, the balloons broke loose from their moorings, putting the occupants at the mercy of the wind. One example of the dangers of balloon flight came when the mooring line of the balloon that BG Fitz John Porter was in riding snapped. As he drifted over the Confederate lines, Union soldiers below urged him to open the valve, but Porter correctly assessed this was a bad idea. Instead, he tossed ballast out in order to gain altitude and get himself out of range of enemy gunfire. As he ascended, he carefully noted the positions of rebel emplacements. After a while, the wind changed direction back towards friendly lines, where upon he released the valve and made a swift descent onto a tent near McClellan’s headquarters.

In addition to being subject to the fickleness of the winds, aeronauts were the targets of continuous ground fire, sometimes from friendly troops who mistook the balloons for the enemy. Confederate gunners resented the fact that they were being observed from above. Every balloon ascent brought potshots from every rifle and gun below.

Every time a balloon came into sight it offered Confederate gunners an opportunity to practice their gunnery skills. The Confederates developed a tactic for shooting at the balloons. They laid out a sheet of fire designed to hit the balloon as it ascended or descended. This is much like the technique taught to modern ground troops for engaging aircraft. The likelihood of bringing down a balloon down with small arms fire, much like the chance of bringing down a modern aircraft in the same manner, would be in the realm of pure luck. The Confederates scored some near misses but no direct hits. Fragments sometimes struck the baskets at Seven Pines as shells passed between the mooring lines.

At Yorktown, the rebels fired incessantly at the balloons. Lowe reported that on one occasion the enemy elevated an Armstrong gun in attempt to shoot a balloon down, but the rebels used such an excessive propelling charge that the gun burst. A Union correspondent at Yorktown recorded that the balloons “gave [the Confederates] paroxysms of rage.” The likelihood of bringing down a balloon was so remote that rebel commanders must have allowed the continual shooting at them only as a stress reliever and morale booster. The waste of ammunition defies explanation.

The Confederates did claim to have shot a balloon down on the Peninsula. On 20 June 1862 the Atlanta Southern Confederacy announced under the headline “Abe’s Balloon Plugged” that a federal balloon was brought down when a shot from Purcell’s Battery struck the balloon and tore it to pieces. This story and others are unsubstantiated, as there is no record of any Union balloon being shot down. Furthermore, when the Balloon Corps disbanded in 1863, it had all the balloons it started with.

Although no balloons were shot down, Confederate gunners did make life difficult for ground crews. At one point Lowe had bombproofs constructed to provide some measure of safety for his troops. BG George Stoneman, McClellan’s cavalry chief on the Peninsula, complained once that a shell fired at one of Lowe’s balloons nearly struck him. A sergeant in a New York regiment reported that one rebel shell “dropped down into the cookhouse at General Slocum’s headquarters, scattering camp kettles and cooks, who were just preparing breakfast.”

At Yorktown, MG Samuel P. Heintzelman described how he and nearly 100 other troops, including six general officers, narrowly escaped injury when a shell fired at a Union balloon fell among them. Also, on 3 May 1862, a 64-pounder struck close to McClellan. Fearing that the nearby balloon would draw fire towards the troops on the ground, he ordered the balloon, with BG Porter onboard as an observer, to descend. The incoming fire brought by balloon ascents did not bother the soldiers during active operations, but during lulls in the battle, the uninvited artillery fire rightly disturbed them.

In the early days of the Peninsula campaign, the Confederates also had a balloon. Flown by CPT John Randolph Bryan, it was inflated with hot air generated from a stove burning turpentine soaked pinecones. It could not stay aloft very long. When compared with the Union balloons, which could be filled in less than three hours and stay aloft for up to two weeks, the Confederate effort at using balloons on the battlefield was quite dismal.

Like the Union ascents, Bryan’s brought the attention of the enemy. In order to reduce the likelihood of having a balloon brought down by gunfire, the Confederates harnessed horses to the guide wires. At the signal from the balloonist, the horses were driven away at a gallop, literally dragging the balloon out of the sky.

Bryan made his last flight at night, and it was not terribly successful. During the flight, the single anchor cable was cut when a hapless soldier on the ground became entangled. With the balloon freed from its mooring, Bryan floated helplessly over the Union lines, then over friendly lines where he was nearly brought down by fire from rebels who thought he was a federal. Finally, Bryan crashed behind Confederate lines, destroying the balloon. The Confederates would not have another balloon until later in the Peninsula campaign.

Balloons were used on the Peninsula for artillery observation. The aeronauts would observe the artillery fire at unseen targets. As the shells impacted the balloonist would relay instructions to the artillerists. These instructions would be passed to those on the ground by one of three methods: dropped messages; telegraph, with a system of codes to minimize the time required to send messages; and visual signals. Written messages were weighted with a bullet fastened to a ring, attached to a mooring cable, and slid to the ground station below. When time was not of the essence the observer would write out a report and deliver it upon request.

Telegraph lines could be connected as far back to the rear as necessary. On one occasion, Lowe sent a message directly to President Lincoln from his balloon. At Seven Pines the telegraph lines ran directly from one of Lowe’s balloons to the War Department in Washington, via Fort Monroe. This gave the War Department and the Commander in Chief up to the minute information on the battle.

Visual signals first consisted of several balloons signaling to one another. On the Peninsula, McClellan’s signal officer, COL Albert Myer, suggested a system of rockets fired from the balloons. Gunboats on the James River observed these rockets, and observers relayed the messages to headquarters. Sometimes units on the ground fired rockets. Several balloon ascents were made just for the purpose of observing these rockets. Balloons could relay information from these dispersed units quicker than other methods of communications. During the battle of Seven Pines visual signals supplemented the telegraph. Myer directed a signal officer to “look for signals from [the] balloon nearest you and report them to General McClellan, who is in front near Sumner. [The] Balloon will reply to signal ‘AF’ which [you will] make with a 6-foot flag and 16-foot pole.”

Critical to the success of balloons on the Peninsula (and anywhere else) was the careful selection of ascension points. Balloon camps were placed, whenever possible, in spots that provided cover from artillery fire and concealment from enemy observation. The balloons were susceptible to enemy action and could not be moved easily. Before Yorktown, CPT Henry N. Blake described the ground station of one balloon as a “cavern, which seemed to have been prepared by nature for the purpose.” A British observer, CPT Frederick F.E. Beaumont, described Lowe’s headquarters near the Chickahominy River as “snugly ensconced in a hollow, protected from view by a hill in front, from the top of which a convenient position for ascent was gained. The Professor’s tent and those of the rest of the balloon corps was scattered around, forming a small distinct encampment.” Another consideration in placing balloons was shelter from the wind. Operators also had to keep the inflation sites away from open fires to prevent ignition of the highly flammable hydrogen gas.

Throughout the Peninsula campaign Lowe’s balloons made countless ascents during the battles at Hanover Courthouse, Gaines Mill, and Seven Pines. Lowe used his balloon Intrepid many times. The typical observation height was 1,000 feet. While anchored at a spot north of the Chickahominy, the Confederates would engage the balloon with a Whitworth gun posted on the south side of the river. The balloon was in particular danger while at a height of 300 feet or less. BG Porter made no fewer than 100 ascensions under these conditions.

While observing the Union balloon activities, the Confederates labored to construct a durable balloon of their own. The idea of making a Confederate balloon for military observation came from Dr. Edward Cheves of Savannah, Georgia. He bought all the silk in Savannah and Charleston, developed a varnish (made of old rubber railcar springs dissolved in oil) to make the silk airtight, and constructed a balloon. Cheves brought his balloon to Richmond in 1862.

When the balloon arrived, GEN Robert E. Lee ordered LTC Edward Porter Alexander, who would later become Lee’s chief of artillery, to take charge of the balloon. Alexander later wrote in his memoirs that he felt strongly that balloon observers should be “trained staff officers, not the ignorant class of ordinary balloonists…generally in charge of the Federal balloons.” Clearly Alexander considered himself superior to the crews sent aloft by Lowe, even though he had a fear of heights that followed him from his days at West Point. This fear was overcome through counseling by Dr. Cheves.

While the Confederates had a balloon, they lacked the ability to fill it in the field. Even though they had captured three of Lowe’s portable gas generators, they did not use them. Instead, the rebels filled their balloon with illuminating gas from the Richmond Gas Works. This gas had its limitations: it could lift a man to a maximum height of 1,000 feet and flights were limited to six or seven hours. The balloons also lacked the signaling options of Lowe’s balloons. Alexander had to rely on a series of balls suspended from the bottom of the balloon to signal troops below.

Alexander’s first ascension came during the battle of Gaines Mill. He was at a point about two miles from the action. He could seldom see actual troops but the smoke of battle told him what was happening. He was able to report the movement of Slocum’s division to reinforce Porter. Over the next few days he made both day and night ascensions. At night he observed campfires to estimate the numbers and locations of troops and to identify the retreat routes of the federals.

Alexander transported the inflated balloon by train and tugboat to the scene of battle. On the night of 3 July 1862, Alexander had the tug Teaser tow the balloon down the James near Malvern Hill. Alexander ascended for a few hours before dawn on 4 July. At sunrise he descended and folded the balloon on the deck of the tug. The skipper of the Teaser offered to take Alexander further down river where he could land and make his report to GEN Lee. The Teaser, however, ran aground, and it was not long before a federal gunboat captured the tug. Alexander and the boat’s crew escaped, but the Confederate balloon was captured. Thus ended Alexander’s brief career as an aeronaut. After the loss of this balloon, another was constructed in Savannah. It was used in the Savannah-Charleston area until it too was lost in 1863. The rebels did not attempt to build any more, probably because by then Union Balloon Corps had ceased operations.

Lowe’s Balloon Corps was a useful element of the Army of the Potomac on the Peninsula. They were used as forward observers for artillery, as a signal platform, and for spotting enemy formations. Commanders relied on these balloons as intelligence platforms, and they saved Union forces from major defeats at Gaines Mill and Fair Oaks. They forced the enemy to conceal themselves by blacking out camps after dark and waste manpower to create dummy camps and gun emplacements. Yet, for all they offered, they were virtually unsupported by the chain of command. They had to fight and overcome obstacles just to maintain operations.

After the Peninsula campaign, as went McClellan, so went the Balloon Corps. McClellan’s successors failed to support Lowe. In 1863, Lowe left the Army in frustration, leaving only a few balloonists in his place. His successors lacked his organizational skills and the corps he put together with so much promise vanished.

It is not exactly clear why the Balloon Corps was abandoned. While it is true the corps lacked the necessary support of senior officers, the question as to why they did not support it remains. Perhaps they were shortsighted in recognizing the potential of balloons. Or, perhaps they concluded, just as Prussian GEN Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke did in 1859, that the technical challenges posed by balloons outweighed their military potential. The truth is not likely to be known. Suffice to say that what could have become a significant contribution to tactical intelligence has been relegated to the position of historical curiosity.