lincoln's flying spies: thaddeus lowe and the civil war balloon corps


This book has curriculum connections to Social Studies/History, Language Arts, and Science in Grades 5-12 and supports the teaching of the National Standards. It contains timeline, notes, bibliography, and lists of recommended books, places to visit, and Web sites.

The activities and questions below can be adjusted for grade level and used for writing, oral discussion, or class presentations.


This book covers the strategy, goals, and outcome of Civil War battles and campaigns from
April 1861 to June 1863.
                Civil War: The causes. The course and character of the war.

History Activities:

  • Make a timeline showing when and where the Union army’s Balloon Corps operated.
  • Using a copy of the map in the front of the book, trace the path of the Army of the Potomac and Balloon Corps and the path of the Confederate forces from summer 1861 to summer 1863.
  • Give examples of situations in which the Balloon Corps helped the Union army. (Students should discuss surveillance of enemy camps, aiming artillery, map-making, battlefield observations)
  • Give examples of how the Confederate army reacted to the Union balloons.
  • What were the reasons for the disbanding of the Balloon Corps in summer 1863?
  • Explain why the Confederate army did not have greater success using surveillance balloons.
  • The images in the book were taken during the Civil War, the first war to be extensively photographed. Use the photographs and their captions to discuss:
                    A soldier’s life -- the uniforms and campsites
                    War balloons -- size and operation
                    The role of telegraph during the Civil War
                    Civil War battles -- Fort Sumter, the Seven Days Battles, and the battles of Fair Oaks/Seven Pines, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville
  • Research a particular Civil War battle. Write a report or create a poster that shows the battle’s who, what, when, where, and why.
  • Research the use of manned military balloons by Europeans during the 18th & 19th centuries and by the U.S. Army in World War I.


This book is a biography of Thaddeus Lowe, the New Hampshire native who organized the Balloon Corps.
                Read, understand, appreciate a biography.
                Discuss the book and express opinions through written, spoken, and visual language.
                Describe historic events through eyes and experiences of those who were there.
                Analyze historic documents (letters, memoirs, diaries).

Language Arts Activities:

  • What character traits helped Thaddeus Lowe reach his goal of organizing and leading the U.S. Balloon Corps?
  • Using quotes in the book taken from diaries, letters, and memoirs, discuss what Union and Confederate soldiers and generals thought of Thaddeus Lowe and the Union Balloon Corps.
  • Pretend to be Thaddeus Lowe. Write a journal or letters to your family detailing your experiences as head of the Balloon Corps.
  • Read Jules Verne’s novel, The Mysterious Island. Discuss the ways the novel’s account of the Civil War balloons contrasts with their actual use by the Union and Confederate armies.


This book discusses hydrogen balloons and the telegraph.
                Properties of matter
                Chemical reactions
                Science and technology
                History of science

Science Activities:

  • Discuss how hydrogen balloons work. Compare them to hot air balloons, which are more commonly used today. Why were hot air balloons impractical during the Civil War?
  • Discuss how Lowe’s portable generators produced hydrogen gas. Why were the generators so important to the success of the Balloon Corps?
  • Discuss how the telegraph was used during the Civil War. What other methods did the aeronauts use to communicate balloon observations from the air to the ground?
  • Research the attempts to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a balloon, including the first successful crossing in 1978, nearly 120 years after Thaddeus Lowe tried.

More to Explore

Thaddeus Lowe

  • Professor Thaddeus Lowe
    Web site maintained by one of Lowe’s descendants. Contains photographs, articles, and other resources.
  • Smithsonian Air and Space Museum:
    Thaddeus Lowe and Civil War Ballooning
    Resources, Lesson Plans, Blogs, Photographs, and other links about Thaddeus Lowe and ballooning.
  • The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club
    The award-winning documentary film about Thaddeus Lowe’s aviatrix granddaughter Pancho Barnes, Hollywood stunt pilot and rival of Amelia Earhart.
  • The Ballad of Thaddeus Lowe
    A short animated tribute to Civil War aeronaut Lowe, by Kelly Jones.
  • Man, Moment, Machine: Lincoln & the Flying Spying Machine, The History Channel, DVD, 2009
    Video (47 min) uses interviews, archival photographs, and actors to show how hydrogen balloons helped the Union army during the Civil War.
  • International Spy Museum, Washington, D.C.
    Fascinating exhibits about spies throughout history. See the exhibit on the Civil War sky spies.

The Civil War

  • The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns.
    PBS site for the film contains video clips, photographs, information about the war, and lists of Civil War books and Web sites.
  • Civil War Maps. American Memory, Library of Congress.
    View Civil War maps that show battlefields, attack plans, troop movements, and fortifications.
  • Civil War Photograph Collection, American Memory, Library of Congress.
    A searchable collection of more than a thousand images with information about the photographs and a Civil War timeline.
  • CivilWar@Smithsonian, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
    The Smithsonian’s online collection of Civil War portraits, photographs, and artifacts. Site includes a timeline and lists of other resources about Lincoln, Civil War leaders and soldiers, and weapons.
  • Richmond National Battlefield Park, Richmond, Virginia.
    Find out more about the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, during which both sides used surveillance balloons. Visit museums and battlefield sites managed by the National Park Service.
  • Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, Fredericksburg, Virginia.
    Learn about the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville at the visitor centers and battlefield walking trails.
  • Civil War Traveler
    Listen to podcasts of battlefield tours led by National Park Service historians. Find maps of Civil War battlefields.
  • Civil War Trust
    Site includes articles about the War and its causes, biographies of key figures, photographs, and information about battlefields. View primary source documents related to the War. Check out the activities for students and teachers, links to other websites, and list of recommended books.



  • The National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
    Has exhibits and online images about Thaddeus Lowe, the Civil War spy balloons, and balloon flight throughout history.
  • History Detectives

View video and read transcripts from PBS’s History Detectives episodes about Civil War balloons, war balloons, and Civil War photography.


  • Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
    Web site for the world’s largest annual balloon gathering. Short articles explain how modern hot air and gas balloons work. Reference section includes books and web sites about ballooning.