Thaddeus Lowe, chief aeronaut of the fledgling Union Army Balloon Corps, had been making preliminary flights throughout the fall of 1861 to observe Confederate troop positions.
On Saturday, Dec. 14, from a base he’d established on the Maryland shore near Edwards Ferry, Lowe and his assistants began spying on the Rebs around Leesburg.
Minutemen of Attala diarist Mike Hubbert recorded the sight:
“Saturday, Clear and warm. The enemy sent up a balloon today to view our camp.”
Two days later, Lowe reported to his Army superiors what he’d been able to discern from the aerial reconnaissance:
“On Saturday morning I ascended quite early and took an observation of the enemy’s country. Very few troops were visible, and these were scattered both up and down the river. We could see into nearly every street of Leesburg, but scarcely any troops were visible.
“The main body appears to be between Leesburg and Centerville–I should judge fifteen or twenty miles below the former–as camps and heavy smokes were quite visible in that direction.
“Later in the day I ascended again, and a number of their tents which were visible in the morning inside of their earth-works between Edwards Ferry and Leesburg were taken down, and teams were observed moving toward the village of Leesburg.
“In the afternoon I was accompanied in my ascension by General Stone, who added several points to his map. The balloon still remains inflated, and will be ready for use at all times, in charge of a competent assistant aeronaut.”
The balloon corps kept it, uh, up all winter and then moved down to the Virginia peninsula in the spring. Fortunately for the Confederates, Lowe and his balloons never impressed the stodgy Union army much.
He and his aeronauts drew only sporadic interest from a few imaginative generals such as Stone. Most thought the balloons no better than ridiculous playthings and ignored them.