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Balloons in the Civil War

Updated on February 5, 2013
Image Usage: Royalty free
Image Usage: Royalty free | Source

Balloons in the Civil War

Few men take pride in the efforts the Union army took to preserve the nation with the use of balloons. Many people do not realize the importance of such simple, inconspicuous, and even deadly war vessels. Used mostly by the Union army, these balloons were at first designed to carry one person at least 5,000 feet in the air on reconnaissance missions. In 1861, Thaddeus Lowe and John LaMountain, the geniuses behind the creations, first introduced the balloons to President Lincoln for reconnaissance and delivering telegrams. They demonstrated this with the Enterprise, a hydrogen balloon with a 500 foot tether. President Lincoln was so impressed, he formed the Balloon Corps, a government-funded, civilian division led by Thaddeus Lowe.

The Union balloons were an invisible enemy. They floated silently over Confederate camps and shot them down from the sky, while the Union troops followed with a ground attack. Many war balloons were constructed, such as the Intrepid, Constitution, United States, Washington, Eagle, Excelsior, and Lowe’s original Union.

Despite their success, the war balloons slowly died out. Lowe and LaMountain formed a rivalry and were eventually dismissed from any military actions. The Balloon Corps, in turn, disbanded in 1863. But not before the Confederates had a chance with this new war method. Not having enough resources, they relied on hot air to lift a cotton envelope coated with varnish. It could still lift people, but with little success. The second balloon was made of multi-colored silk. This “Silk Dress Balloon” sprouted the false rumor that the silk was donated by ladies of the Confederacy. It was gas-filled and towed by a locomotive, and later, by a tugboat where it was eventually captured by the Union.

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