Trial Balloon

What’s missing from most Civil War re-enactments? The guy in the sky.

During the Civil War, Arlington, McLean and Falls Church saw plenty of action on the ground—and even some from the air. For the first time in U.S. history, aerial reconnaissance was conducted from gas balloons. One of the earliest missions was carried out by aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe.

Lowe first gained the attention of President Lincoln in June 1861, when he ascended 500 feet in a tethered balloon over the National Mall. From his position high above the city, he sent Lincoln the first-ever aerial telegram, which read in part: “The city with its girdle of encampments presents a superb scene. I have pleasure in…the opportunity of demonstrating the availability of the science of aeronautics in the military service of the country.”

Lowe, who had flown the same balloon (the Enterprise) from Ohio to South Carolina a couple of months earlier, was confident he could provide tactical intelligence for Union troops.

“[That demonstration] led to a long meeting with the president and his endorsement of the formation of the Aeronautic Corps,” says Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum.

Lincoln “was especially interested in my plan for directing the fire of artillery on an enemy that the gunners themselves could not see,” Lowe wrote in his unpublished memoir, My Balloons in Peace and War.

Following the First Battle of Bull Run, Lowe took his balloon to Fort Corcoran in Arlington (a Union position located at what is now the intersection of Key Boulevard and North Ode Street), where, despite rainy and windy conditions, “he saw that the Confederates were not streaming toward Washington as feared,” Crouch says.

Over the next few months, Lowe made a series of troop observations from the craft, coming under fire from Confederates and even once, accidentally, from Union troops. On September 24, 1861, near Falls Church, he directed artillery fire for the first time on Confederate positions. But rather than using the telegraph, Lowe signaled the gunners with flags, raising a white flag if the men were to fire to the right of Falls Church and lowering it if they needed to shoot left.

“The battery marksman, without seeing who or what he was firing at, by merely watching me, made such an accurate fire that the enemy was demoralized,” Lowe wrote.

Despite the success of this and subsequent tactical missions, however, the momentum for balloon reconnaissance was short-lived. Following Lowe’s resignation in 1863, the Aeronautic Corps, deflated by a new command and reduced funding, faded away.

Categories: Local History