The Infernal Balloon

[Source: “The Infernal Balloon”, ARMYHISTORY, Web, Fall 2014 PB 20-14-4 (No. 93) Washington, D.C.]


In July of 1861, Union forces nervously defending Washington, D.C., in the aftermath of the disastrous reversal at the Battle of First Bull Run were shocked to discover a balloon sailing toward them from Confederate territory. Shouting at the occupant to “show his colors,” they began firing at this aerial invader. The balloon’s occupant, professional balloonist (or “aeronaut”) Thaddeus S. C. Lowe was, in fact, a civilian employee of the United States Army, who was returning from a reconnaissance of Confederate lines. As the Union pickets greeted him with rifle fire, Lowe decided to take his chances and land elsewhere. Eventually, he and his balloon landed in a copse of trees more than two miles outside Union lines, where he and his “somewhat damaged” balloon were eventually rescued by soldiers from a regiment of New York volunteers. Lowe was the most famous of several professional and amateur balloonists who volunteered to serve in the Civil War by offering the use of their primitive aircraft for a variety of reconnaissance and observation functions. Many within the military were suspicious of Lowe’s “Balloon Corps” and discounted aerial reconnaissance as militarily useless. Similarly, some historians have dismissed the impact that these men had on the outcome
of the war, especially since the Union Army disbanded the aeronautics unit in the summer of 1863. Newspapers …. View the entire original article

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About the Author
Maj. Joseph C. Scott is the senior air and missile defense operations officer for XVIII Airborne Corps, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He received his bachelor’s degree in history from Dartmouth College and his master’s degree in history from the University of Virginia. He is a former assistant professor of history at the United States Military Academy (USMA), and the author of several book chapters in West Point Leadership: Profiles of Courage (West Point, N.Y., 2013), an award winning collection of biographies of famous USMA graduates. Major Scott is currently deployed with the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan.