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Intelligence Throughout History: The Birth of Overhead Reconnaissance

Thaddeus Lowe, a 29-year-old hot air balloon enthusiast, went up 500 feet on June 18, 1861, looked down on Washington and sent a message to President Lincoln: "The city, with its girdle of encampments, presents a superb scene." By linking the balloon to the telegraph, Lowe transformed what had been a novelty at country fairs into a tool for a new kind of intelligence gathering: real-time aerial reconnaissance.

The Creation of the U.S. Army Balloon Corps

Lowe's demonstration had been arranged by Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and an enthusiastic supporter of the use of balloons in war. With a note introducing Lowe, President Abraham Lincoln nudged Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, commanding general of the U.S. Army, to use balloons to gather intelligence on the Confederate troops. The Army soon accepted the new tool, forming the U.S. Army Balloon Corps.

In March 1862, when Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan began his campaign up the Virginia peninsula, Thaddeus Lowe, bearing the title Chief Aeronaut, went along. He had three balloons and what he described as an "aeronautic train, consisting of four army wagons and two gas generators."


Gathering Intelligence from the Air

At 3 o'clock one morning, Lowe went up and stayed aloft until daybreak, "observing the camp-fires and noting the movements of the enemy" around Yorktown.

Brig. Gen. Fitz John Porter went up next, getting—from 1,000 feet—an unprecedented view of an American battlefield. As soon as he landed, Porter rounded up generals and mapmakers and drew maps showing the Confederate forts, based on what he and Lowe had seen.


The Confederate Troops React

As the Union began to make routine use of the balloons, the Confederates reacted. They shot at them with cannons but the balloons were too high to be reached by the heavy cannonballs. Confederate artillery officers soon learned that they only made themselves targets for fire directed by Union spotters in the balloons.

Then, in the age-old rhythm of intelligence, an espionage innovation produced a counter innovation: The Confederates started camouflaging encampments and blacking out their camps after learning that Union balloonists counted campfires to estimate troop strength. To fool daytime observers, Confederates painted logs black and arranged them to look like cannons jutting from defenses. They were dubbed "Quaker guns" and "wooden ordnance."


Confederate Hot Air Balloons

The Confederates themselves raised balloons a few times. The South, however, lacked equipment for producing hydrogen gas and rubber. The first Confederate balloon was made of varnish covered cotton and was filled with hot air. The balloonist drew a map of Union positions near Yorktown, but had trouble controlling the balloon.

The next Confederate balloon was made of colorful swaths of silk (inspiring the legend that the balloon's fabric consisted of ball gowns donated by patriotic Southern belles). Filled at Richmond's municipal gas works, the balloon was tethered to a locomotive, which took it to an observation site. The balloon later was moved by a tugboat and taken down the James River. The tug ran aground, and Union troops captured both the boat and the balloon.


Paving the Way for Future Innovations

Both sides soon gave up the use of balloons: the South because of a lack of resources, and the North primarily because Lowe and his balloons could not find a niche in the U.S. Army. Lowe resigned in May 1863, and the U.S. Army Balloon Corps was disbanded soon after. However, Lowe’s use of the hot air balloon paved the way for future innovations in overhead reconnaissance, such as the U-2 and the A-12.


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    Posted: Jun 03, 2011 10:42 AM
    Last Updated: Oct 23, 2019 03:38 PM