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Posted on May 12, 2004 in War College

Balloons in the American Civil War

Editorial Staff

The presence of the balloons forced the Confederates to conceal their forces. To avoid detection, they blacked out their camps after dark and also created dummy encampments and gun emplacements, all of which took valuable time and personnel.

However, the balloon corps did not last until the end of the war. General George McClellan was relieved of his command in 1863, and Captain Cyrus Comstock, who was assigned to oversee the balloon corps, cut its funding and thus its effectiveness. Lowe was also accused of financial impropriety, and his pay was reduced. Lowe resigned from the balloon corps on May 8, 1863. By August 1863, the corps had disbanded.

As well as aerial reconnaissance and telegraphy, Lowe and LaMountain also introduced the use of aircraft carriers. Lowe directed the construction in 1861 of the first aircraft carrier, George Washington Parke Custis, a rebuilt coal barge with a flight deck superstructure. On one occasion, she towed one of Lowe’s balloons for 13 miles (21 kilometers) at an altitude of 1,000 feet (305 meters) while Lowe made continuous observations.


A reconnaissance balloon is launched from the coal barge George Washington Parke Curtis, during the American Civil War.

On August 3, 1861, LaMountain used the deck of the small vessel Fanny to launch an observation balloon 2,000 feet (610 meters) over the James River. He used the Union tugboat Adriatic for the same purpose. Word of the Americans’ achievements even reached Europe, where the Prussian army sent Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin to learn what he could from this kind of warfare.

Ferdinand Adolf August Heinrich Graf von Zeppelin (1838-1917).

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