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Posted on May 12, 2004 in War College

Balloons in the American Civil War

Editorial Staff

At the same time, fellow aeronaut John LaMountain was also attempting to provide balloon services for the Union. He wrote to Secretary Cameron in 1861, but, because he had no influential backers, LaMountain did not receive a reply. However, the commander of the Union Forces at Fort Monroe, Major General Benjamin F. Butler, contacted him and asked for a demonstration. Using the Atlantic, which he had used to attempt to reach the Atlantic Ocean earlier, he made two successful ascents at Fort Monroe in July 1861. The New York Times reported that LaMountain could view the Confederate encampments beyond Newmarket Bridge, Virginia, and also at the James River north of Newport News. LaMountain had actually made the first aerial reconnaissance of the Civil War and also was the first to gather intelligence by free balloon flight rather than from a tethered balloon.


John Wise, John La Mountain, and Thaddeus Lowe fight a storm in the Atlantic.

LaMountain, however, did not have the Union Army behind him, and he had difficulty obtaining equipment. He managed to obtain another balloon, the Saratoga. That balloon, however, was lost on November 16, 1861. He tried to get some of Lowe’s equipment, but Lowe refused to cooperate. Each man found supporters, and the rivalry between the two grew. Finally, after accusations and hostilities on both sides, on February 19, 1862, General McClellan dismissed LaMountain from any further service to the military.

John LaMountain attempted to provide balloons for reconnaissance to the Union troops during the Civil War.

Lowe continued providing tactical reports to the Union troops. He provided information during the siege of Yorktown, Virginia, and in late April 1863, at Fredericksburg, he transmitted hourly reports on Confederate movements. During the battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia, Lowe continually transmitted information on enemy troop positions. Observations made during this battle proved to be crucial to the Union victory.

Inflation of the balloon Intrepid to reconnoiter the Battle of Fair Oaks, 1862.

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