Lincoln's Flying Spies:
Thaddeus Lowe and the Civil War Balloon Corps
Suddenly, Thaddeus Lowe noticed a puff of white smoke from a line of trees. A second later, he heard the explosive bang of a cannon. Before he could react, the cannon’s shell screamed past his balloon, barely missing it. Lowe tracked the shell as it crashed into a field and exploded.
He shouted down to the men holding the ropes, “Haul in the cables—quick!”
At that moment, a second shell whizzed through the balloon rigging and burst in the air.
His ears ringing from the bang, Lowe yelled, “Are you pulling in there, you men?”
He heard another bang followed by a shell shrieking past. A second Confederate battery had started firing at him!
(Excerpt from Lincoln’s Flying Spies)
The Story of Thaddeus Lowe and the Balloon Corps
Bombardment of Ft. Sumter, April 1861
THE CIVIL WAR BEGINS
Confederate troops fire on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861.
A week later, Aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe launches from Ohio in a hydrogen balloon. He wants to prove that he can fly eastward on upper air currents. After nine hours of flight, he brings down his balloon in South Carolina. The locals arrest him as a Northern spy. Lowe convinces his captors that he is on a scientific mission, and they release him. No one, including Thaddeus Lowe, knows that within three months, he WILL become a Union spy.
President Abraham Lincoln
Thaddeus Lowe, aeronaut
THE BALLOON CORPS IS BORN
Lowe believes that balloons are the perfect way to spy on Confederate troops. He is determined to persuade government and military leaders that the Union army needs a balloon corps. In June 1861, he travels to Washington with a large balloon to demonstrate his idea. Some influential friends arrange a meeting with President Abraham Lincoln. The president is enthusiastic about Lowe’s plan.
The Union army authorizes Thaddeus Lowe to build seven war balloons and to hire assistant aeronauts. Lowe designs mobile gas generators that can produce hydrogen for inflating the balloons on the battlefield.
Hydrogen produced by two gas generators (on left) travels through hoses to the balloon.
During the final months of 1861, the aeronauts make observations from tethered balloons floating hundreds of feet in the air. Spying on Confederate forces along the Potomac River and around Washington, they count troops, detect Rebel movement, and direct Union artillery fire.
Lowe’s gas generator wagons with the U.S. Capitol in the background.
The scene is re-enacted 150 years later on the same spot.
ON TO RICHMOND!
General George McClellan
In spring 1862, Lowe and the Balloon Corps travel from Washington to Virginia with the Union army. Under General George McClellan, Union troops fight their way up the peninsula between the James and York Rivers toward the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia.
On General McClellan’s orders, the balloon spies make hundreds of ascensions. From the sky, they spot enemy camps and artillery batteries hidden from ground view. Using telegraph, they report their observations to ground stations. They soon become targets of Rebel guns and saboteurs, but no balloon is ever shot down.
A balloon crew of Union soldiers holds ropes so that the balloon does not break free.
The Battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia. A Union balloon (upper left) looks down on the fighting.
During the Battle of Fair Oaks/Seven Pines (May 31-June 1, 1862), President Lincoln follows the battle’s progress by reading Lowe’s telegraph messages transmitted from the floating balloon to the War Department in Washington.
Yet after five months and tens of thousands of casualties, General McClellan fails to capture Richmond. By the end of August 1862, the Balloon Corps and the Union army abandon the Virginia peninsula.
FREDERICKSBURG & CHANCELLORSVILLE
Late in 1862, the Balloon Corps travels to Fredericksburg, Virginia, with the army. This time, Union troops will try to attack Richmond from the north. During the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, Lowe and his assistant aeronauts, James and Ezra Allen, report on Rebel positions and take up Union officers to survey the battlefield. But eventually, the Confederates drive back the Union attackers.
Union soldiers hold down the balloon while Lowe stands in the basket writing a report.
A messenger on horseback waits to take the dispatch to headquarters.
Ground crews struggle to hold down a balloon during stormy weather.
Union and Confederate forces spend the winter camped around Fredericksburg, across the Rappahannock River from each other. The aeronauts watch the river crossings and countryside for shifts in the enemy’s positions. The floating spies unsettle the Confederates. The Rebels shoot at the balloons but never bring one down.
In early May 1863, the Union army attacks the Confederates at Chancellorsville, about ten miles west of Fredericksburg. During the battle, the Balloon Corps reports on Rebel troop movement and defenses. But poor decisions by Union generals result in another Confederate victory.
The Battle of Chancellorsville
After the Battle of Chancellorsville, Thaddeus Lowe resigns because of disagreements with the army about pay and management of the balloons. Support for the war balloons dwindles among military leaders. By the end of summer 1863, the Balloon Corps is no more. After the war, Thaddeus Lowe becomes a successful inventor. The U.S. Army brings back war balloons during the 1890s and establishes a balloon division during World War I. But by this time, airplanes are taking over the skies.
Map by Mapping Specialists (mappingspecialists.com)
Thaddeus Lowe during the Civil War.
Find out more!
- 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.
Two of the balloons in Virginia, spring 1862.
- 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.
> Images from the Library of Congress and National Archives.