Hot Air Balloons In The Civil War
Who Flew First?.......Although history books credit Francois Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes with the first manned flight on November 21, 1783, there is speculation that there may have been many flights before theirs. Studies show that the first flyers probably were members of the Nazcas Indian tribe in Peru. The Indians may have flown what is referred to as a smoke balloon. The next man off the ground is thought to have been Bartolomeu Laurenco de Gusmao and the flight supposedly took place in Portugal sometime in October 1709 but there is no recorded history of his flight. Until solid proof is found and history is altered, we will subscribe to and agree with the historians who have confirmed evidence provided along with eye witness accounts of the famous event in November 1783 and award the honor of first balloon flight to de Rozier and d'Arlandes.
Types Of Balloons.......There are three basic types of hot air balloons. The first used was the smoke balloon similar to the one pictured here on the left. The smoke balloons operated on the same principal as hot air balloons but on a much more primitive level and although they were very dangerous and likely to fail, types of smoke balloons were still used into the early 1880's. Another problem with the smoke type balloon was that the fabric easily caught fire from the ash and cinders created by the fire pit on the launching pad. A little later on, the hot air balloon (about the same then as we know it now) came upon the scene. Henry Cavendish discovered hydrogen gas (also known then as inflammable air) in 1766 and noting that it was seven times lighter than air, he started experiments with small model balloons. Jacques Alexander Cesar Charles and Jean and Noel Robert went to work figuring out how to use the new hydrogen gas to lift a full size balloon with passengers. All these balloons make use of vents to release the gas or hot air to descend and dropping ballast to ascend. If a balloon is descending too quickly, ballast (such as sand bags) can also be jettisoned to slow the descent. Little has changed in their design within the last 200 years.
Fast Forward.......Military use of hot air balloons was not an idea unique to the Civil War. Years before the Civil War during a balloon exhibition, Benjamin Franklin told others of his idea to fly soldiers in hot air balloons into battle. The French established a balloon corps during the French Revolution and even Denmark, Russia, and Austria did their best to use this "new" idea for military gain. Use of the balloon was also proposed in the Seminole War but the idea never got off the ground. John Wise wanted to use the gas balloon to drop bombs during the Mexican War. It was Thaddeus T. Lowe (photo on right) who successfully demonstrated the usefulness of the balloon for military purposes as early as April 1861 but did not show the balloon to President Lincoln until June 17, 1861. He drifted upwards to a height of 500 feet in a new balloon called Enterprise from the front yard of the White House. The Enterprise spent the night there while President Lincoln pondered the usefulness of such a flying machine. The next day after the President took a closer look at the balloon, he was convinced and authorized the formation of the Balloon Corps. It was said by some that President Lincoln actually made an ascension with Lowe but this has never been confirmed. Then finally on May 31, 1862 in yet another attempt to prove his balloon to other Federal officers, Lowe summoned his courage and ascended in the Union gas balloon, Intrepid. His objective was to view the battle of Fair Oaks in Virginia. This is said to have been the first military flight; but although the Federals like to take credit for the first war time flight. it is a fact that Confederate Captain John R. Bryan in a old dangerous smoke balloon beat them to the punch and had flown his inferior craft on April 13, 1862, to observe Union positions at Yorktown. There were mentions of Confederate balloon activities as early as June 1861 but this activity has never been definitely documented. These were the first uses of hot air balloons during a war in America.
The Confederate Balloons........The call went out from
Johnston for a soldier "well acquainted with the country who could
estimate the number and character of enemy troops." Capt.
R. Bryan heard the call and being disinterested with his present
in the attorney general's office, answered that same call. When
Captain found out what he had volunteered for, he related to friends
ardor to go on special service had been much cooled at the bare thought
of being suspended in mid-air by what appeared to me as a mere thread
a hot air balloon." Never the less, Bryan could not go back
on his word and soon became the commander of the Confederate balloon
In addition to his new command, he also got a new name. His men
soon calling him "Balloon Bryan". Bryan had a close call while
the Union army at Yorktown when he was fired upon by a Confederate
battery. This incident upset him so much that he requested a
from the balloon service. General Joseph E. Johnston denied the
saying: "My dear sir, I fear you forget that you are the only
aeronaut I have with my army." Capt. Bryan was doomed to see his
service in the balloon corps to its end. As in most cases during
the War Between the States, the Confederacy was at a great
and material disadvantage. Try as they might, they were able to
only two balloons into action. These balloons were not the sleek
gas filled type used by the Union army but were as Capt. Bryan said,
but a big cotton bag coated over so as to make it air tight and
to be inflated with hot air, as gas was a thing not to be had in those
places." In reality, both balloons were made of silk dresses
by the local southern women. General Longstreet described it as
great patchwork ship of many varied hues". Apparently neither
balloon had an official name.
Balloons..........Although others in the Union army were skeptical
of the use of this new instrument of reconnaissance, Gen. McClellan did
not need to be convinced of its usefulness. He stood firmly
the new technology and was a staunch supporter of the observation
McClellan urged commanders to make use of them but few did. When
in use, the balloons were tethered and ascended to between 300 and 500
feet above the battlefield to ascertain the enemy's position and
Attempts by the Confederates to shoot down the balloons with everything
from a pistol to a cannon were never successful. The photo at
shows the Union balloon Intrepid.
The Balloon Crews........The Union men assigned to the Balloon Corps were quite proud of them and decorated the balloon baskets and bags with patriotic scenes. The Constitution had a large painting of George Washington while the balloon called Union had an eagle and the American flag on it. The Intrepid had its name printed in large letters on its bag, others were decorated with red, white and blue bunting. The Corps paid well also. The average daily wage of the common infantryman was 50 cents a day, in the Corps Lowe was paid $10.00 a day and his primary aeronaut team were paid between $3.75 and $5.75 per day. One of the main factors for the discrepancy of pay was due to the fact that Lowe and his aeronauts were civilians. The Federal Balloon Corps, under Lowe's supervision, by January 1862 had seven balloons in regular service. Each balloon required a crew of 30 to 50 men to transport, operate and maintain it. The Corps had over 1,000 enlisted men, officers and civilians busy flying and repairing its balloons. Although the corps were made up of civilian supervisors, the ground crews were enlisted soldiers. The only difference in the Balloon Corps soldier's uniform and the regular infantry soldier's were their caps. The military and civilian men assigned to the Balloon Corps had two special insignias of metal in the shape of a balloon; one with the letters B C on it, the other featured the letters A D for Aeronautic Department. These insignia were not officially sanctioned and soon they were discarded.
Balloon Bombs.......The Balloon Corps was formed strictly for reconnaissance but it didn't take long for someone to come up with a plan to use the balloons for offensive military operations. Although none of the balloon bombs were used during the Civil War, a patent for an unmanned aerial bomber balloon was issued to Charles Perley of New York City in February 1863. His idea featured a bomb placed in the basket of a hot air balloon. The drawing at right, from the U.S. Patent Office, shows this device. Figure one exhibits the bomb in the basket and Figure two shows the bomb falling out from the bottom of the basket. The mechanism contained a timer that would trip a hammer on a cylinder which would eject a hinge pin. As the pin ejected, it also ignited the bomb's fuse. At this point, the hinged bottom of the basket would open and release the bomb. There were several major problems with the balloon bomb. The biggest and most important problem was that the weapon could only be used when the wind was blowing in the direction of the enemy. Adjustments could be made to compensate for wind currents if the crew was fast enough and able to maneuver around the field freely to gain a favorable position to launch the balloon. For the best accuracy, it was recommended that the balloon detail send up several small test balloons or gas bags to check the speed and direction of the wind so the timing device could be correctly set. Charles Perley's new idea was never taken seriously and therefore was not implemented.
The Corps Disbanded.....From the beginning, the Union Balloon Corps had its problems. No one knew exactly what branch of the service to assign them to. At first they were in the Corps of Topographical Engineers and the aeronauts drew detailed maps and sketches of enemy positions but then soon they employed a telegraph system to relay their information to commanders on the ground. The Topographical Engineers decided that because the flyers were using a telegraph system they could be rid of the burden of the balloons by reassigning them to the Military-Telegraph Corps. Still later when they acquired their own telegraph train, they were reassigned to the Quartermaster's Department then later to the Corps of Engineers. Lastly, Hooker assigned the balloons to the Signal Corps who had neither the men nor the money to operate and fund the program so the Corps were disbanded. Military conservatism and interdepartmental rivalries doomed what could have been a useful military tool and by the Summer of 1863, the balloons were gone.
That's A First.........The Balloon Corps pioneered many military actions and ideas that we consider quite common today. They invented the first "aircraft carriers" when a converted coal barge, the USS George Washington Parke Custis, towed and launched balloons from its deck and the armed transport, Fanny, towed inflated balloons into battle. When Capt. E.P. Alexander's Confederate artillery battery fired on a Federal balloon in August, 1861 they became the first "anti-aircraft" battery in history and Lowe became the first aircraft to receive their "anti-aircraft" fire from the ground. When the Confederates under General Beauregard knew that Union balloons were in the area, they kept campfires to a minimum and lights dimmed thus practicing the first "blackouts" under military conditions. The balloons also became the first "aerial spotters" for artillery in September 1861 near Washington's Chain Bridge. Other firsts that we consider commonplace in wars today could have been established but were not followed through with, included the suggestion of aerial photography, aerial bombing and troop transport among others.
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