Civil War Profiles – Ballooning: ‘Would you like to ride…’

The Union Army of the Potomac had high hopes, so to speak, for a new technology that became available shortly after hostilities between the states erupted in April 1861. As the Northerners faced Confederate troops across the Rappahannock River in Virginia in June 1862, Brig. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys wrote a note to Thaddeus Lowe, asking, “Have you been able to ascend this morning?

Professor Lowe had organized a Balloon Corps for the Union army that provided information about the strength and position of the Rebels by ascending to considerable heights in gas-inflated balloons to observe across enemy lines. This pioneering effort was a unique weapon for gathering intelligence not available to the Confederates, who lacked necessary resources and materials for balloon construction. (See Coastal Point, May 6, 2016)

The Winter 2015 issue of Civil War Monitor magazine included a statistical synopsis of Balloon Corps operations. Regarding gas generators to fill the balloons, there were two generators that Lowe designed for his primary balloon, the Intrepid. The generators weighed 1,000 pounds and cost $500 each. It required 4,900 pounds of iron filings and sulfuric acid to inflate the Intrepid prior to flight.

The balloon had a 35,000-cubic-foot gas capacity that took 2.5 to 3.5 hours to inflate. The cost of the helium to inflate it was $75.

The Intrepid was 38 feet in diameter at its widest point of circumference, and encompassed 1,200 yards of silk-woven fabric or “pongee” in its construction. These materials cost $1,500, or about $33,000 in present-day dollars.

The Intrepid could retain its ability to go aloft for 14 days on a single inflation. Its typical ascension was from 500 to 2,000 feet to observe enemy activities. The 29-year-old civilian Professor Lowe earned a $10 daily wage for his services; equivalent to the rank of brigadier general.

The gondola of the Intrepid could carry up to five men. Guide ropes of .5 to .75 inches controlled the balloon in ascending and descending.

Lowe led a team of seven aeronauts who operated the corps’ seven hydrogen-filled aerial reconnaissance balloons. The balloonists or their military passengers observed enemy locations and movements, and reported their findings by a variety of methods, including hand or flag signals. The larger balloons were equipped with telegraph equipment and an operator to send information by wire from the gondola to the ground below.

The Balloon Corps provided valuable information about the enemy to the Union army while it was in existence. It was credited with saving the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Fair Oaks (also known as Seven Pines) in Virginia in May and June 1862.

It ceased operation in mid-1863 for a variety of logistical and organizational reasons. Lowe was disgruntled, serving as a civilian in a military-dominated environment in which relations and cooperation had deteriorated.

Although short-lived, the Union Balloon Corps played a groundbreaking role for development of airborne reconnaissance in future combat operations.

The sensation of rising to great heights in an air-filled balloon was captured in the modern-day Jimmy Webb lyrics of the Fifth Dimension’s hit song “Up-Up & Away.” Thaddeus Lowe must have invited passengers with similar inquiries, “Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon?”

Tom Ryan is the author of the dual award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. Contact him at, or visit his website at