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Posted on May 12, 2004 in War College

Balloons in the American Civil War

Editorial Staff

Some authorities claim that, although balloon observations contributed to battle victories, the Union Army’s commanding generals did not use the balloon observations advantageously. Vague reports on Robert E. Lee’s movements issued from the hydrogen balloon Intrepid during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign apparently served only to panic General McClellan. The general withdrew his vastly superior forces and positioned them seven miles (11 kilometers) from Richmond, Virginia, rather than attacking the sparsely defended Confederate capital and ending the war three years and tens of thousands of lives sooner. After McClellan was relieved of his command, Ulysses S. Grant took over and reorganized the Army of the Potomac. Preferring to rely more on attrition than on intelligence, he disbanded the Balloon Corps.


Thaddeus S. Lowe observing the battle from his balloon Intrepid.

The Confederate Army also formed a smaller version of the balloon corps. In the spring of 1862, Captain John Randolph Bryan offered to oversee the building and deployment of an observation balloon. This balloon consisted of a cotton envelope coated with varnish. Unlike the hydrogen-filled Union balloons, it was a Montgolfié²¥?filled with hot air?because the Confederacy did not have the equipment for generating hydrogen in the field.

Bryan launched the balloon on April 13, 1862, over Yorktown, Virginia. Even though the balloon was rotating on its single tether while aloft, Bryan managed to sketch a map of Union positions. On his next flight, Bryan ended up in free flight after the tether was cut to free an entangled ground crew member. He was fired upon by Confederate troops below who thought he was the enemy, but managed to escape and land safely.

Montgolfi貥 was the name that Joseph and Jacques-ȴienne Montgolfier gave to the type of balloon that they created and flew in France beginning in 1783. It was filled with air that was heated to produce buoyancy and was usually made with a silk and paper fabric. The ability of the Montgolfi貥 to stay aloft depended greatly on the temperature of the air within the balloon, which reduced its usefulness for other than recreational purposes. 

The second Confederate balloon was constructed of multi-colored silk, which gave rise to the legend that this Confederate balloon was made from silk dresses donated by the ladies of the Confederacy. Although the "Silk Dress Balloon" was constructed from dress silk, no actual dresses were sacrificed. This balloon was gas-filled in Richmond, Virginia, and carried to the field by tethering it to a locomotive. In 1862, when the battle area moved too far from the railroad, it was attached to a tugboat and carried down the James River where the tug, unfortunately, ran aground and was captured.

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