Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Civil War from Above

How did I get here? It s an interesting story. I was looking at articles in the newspaper archives about James County and its towns; when I ran across this newspaper story.

July 16, 1863 Thursday  The Richmond Enquirer, Richmond, VA

There were many things here that caught my eye that I would like to explore. But the one sentence that really excited me was about  the balloons. I had heard of the balloons before, but I had no idea that they had been in this area during the Civil War.

Union ballooning activities were much more extensive than those of the Confederacy. They were far more successful and better organized. The Confederates experimented with it for only a year, while the Union dropped most of its activity after 2 years when Lowe left the corps.

Thaddeus Lowe caught President Lincoln's eye when he offered to demonstrate his ballooning skills on June 16, 1861. Lowe jumped into his basket and rose to 500 feet above the ground across the street from the White House. He then sent a telegraph to the President telling him what he saw from the air. 

This was the beginning of the Union Army Balloon Corps with Lowe as the Chief Aeronaut. He then set about developing stronger and higher quality balloons that were needed for military service. He also developed mobile hydrogen gas generator wagons so that the balloons could be inflated and deployed more easily in the field. If they were near a large city like Washington or Richmond, the balloons could be inflated with city gas. The gas wagons were charged with diluted sulfuric acid and iron filings; when combined; the two created hydrogen. 

courtesy of the Library of Congress

The balloons were used for reconnaissance of Confederate positions, artillery spotting, aerial map making and the movement of troops. The aeronaut would then telegraph his observations to the commander or use signal flags to report back his findings.

courtesy of the Library of Congress

The balloons ranged in size. The small ones would hold only one man. But their advantage was that they were smaller and easier to transport. More importantly, they could be inflated faster and more easily. This would put them aloft in a shorter amount of time. The largest could carry up to 5 people. Although these larger balloons allowed for observers and telegraphers, it took much more gas and time for it inflate. 

courtesy of the Library of Congress

The balloons had the ability to soar up to 1000 feet above the landscape. The riders could see for miles around. They could see above the trees and topography. Also they could see above and through the smoke from the gunfire. This gave a decided advantage to the side that had the aerial observation.

courtesy of The Library of Congress

These balloons were meant to be tethered to the ground, since they did not have control of the balloon and its destination, if set free. They could easily follow the wind into enemy territory.Although tethered, the balloons were never in danger. They were positioned well behind enemy lines, and at an altitude of nearly 1000 feet, balloons were difficult targets for the opposing armies.

By the summer of 1863, when Lowe resigned, there had been over 3000 Union flights using six gas inflated balloons. The Eagle, Constitution, Washington, Union, Intrepid and Excelsior had served their country well. The Confederacy employed an unknown small amount of balloon flights, They feared them, and after the capture of one of their balloons, they chose to disband the use of the balloons.

There have never been documented proof that armies used these balloons for transportation, as this article suggests. We do know that Rosecrans was very technologically advanced and used "toys" such as this to increase the Union's strength. It makes sense that he would have continued the use of the balloons even after the Balloon Corp was disbanded. The article above was written a few months after Lowe resigned. 

And as far as we know, the balloons were never used by the war photographers and journalists. Why? Maybe because the balloons were always moving with the weather and photography in those days needed stillness. We may never know why. Transportation and photography would have been excellent reasons to have continued the balloons lofty rides. Those additions to the entire war could have changed history.

As far as James County history is involved, I would love to know what the inhabitants of the county thought when they saw the balloon flying overhead.

This has been a teaser into the Military Balloons of the Civil War. I have included a short 3 minute video of all of this for you, as well. 

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