American Civil War for Kids - Observation Balloons, the Air Force Illustration

American Civil War for Kids - Observation Balloons

The airplane had not yet been invented. But aerial balloons had!

Less than a week after shots were fired on Fort Sumter, Thaddeus Lowe of New Jersey, hovered a balloon 1,000 feet above Washington.  From his balloon, Lowe sent Lincoln a telegram. The message read: "Sir, this point commands an area 50 square miles in diameter. I have pleasure in sending you this telegram, the first ever dispatched from an aerial station." Lincoln was delighted with the idea of using balloons to observe and spy on the enemy. He ordered the Union War Department to issue funds for a fleet of five balloons. Later, Lowe's fleet was expanded to seven balloons.

Lowe had a coal barge rebuilt as a landing pad for his balloons. He called his barge the USS George Washington Parke Curtis. It was designed to be towed behind a tugboat and thus could be moved as needed. His barge is considered the world's first aircraft carrier!

With the help of Lowe and his ballooners, for the first time ever, Union gunners could successfully fire on enemy targets they could not see. Lowe used a telegraph line from his basket to rely information sighted from the air. His information saved the Union army from a surprise attack! When he could not run a telegraph line, Lowe and his men shouted to the men below to tell them what they had observed.

The North's use of balloons forced the Confederates to use roads sheltered by trees and hide in the woods. The Rebels could not shoot down the balloons because they had no high-range artillery. The South would have built balloons of their own, but they had no silk to use to make the balloons, and no one to operate them.

Fortunately for the South, Lowe was so disgusted with Union generals ignoring his observations and under using his ballooners, that he resigned in 1863. Without Lowe, the use of observation balloons ended.

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