PROFESSOR THADDEUS LOWE
Intelligence Throughout History: The Birth of Overhead Reconnaissance
Targeted News Service (USA) - Monday, June 13, 2011
WASHINGTON, June 3 -- The Central Intelligence Agency issued the following feature story:
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
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
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.