Spies in the sky

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.

About Dick Stanley

Retired Texas daily newspaperman
This entry was posted in Battles: Leesburg, Mike M. Hubbert Diary, The Minute Men of Attala and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Spies in the sky

  1. Great story. I didn’t realize that there were observations made in the Leesburg area as well. It is amazing that the balloons never really caught on.

    I also have been reading about observations by Lowe’s balloons in the fall/winter of 1861-62 of the Confederate batteries along the Potomac, and have blogged about the reconnaissances of positions in Virginia across the Potomac from DC:

    • Dick Stanley says:

      Thanks. I take all my tips on stuff like this from the diarists and letter writers of the 13th Regiment, then go looking for corroboration. Got lucky this time.

      I gather from various stuff I’ve read that Lowe was a bit of a horse’s ass, along with the other big time balloonist John LaMountain and the army got tired of both of them. Although there was little support for the idea to begin with, which does seem odd.

      Might have undercut Little Mac’s wildly, ahem, inflated estimates of enemy strength, if they could have been counted from the air. But he was long gone by the time the Balloon Corps was disbanded.

  2. I hadn’t realized Lowe was such a pain in the arse. However, I read that he fired one of his ballonists, who was apparently running a photography business on the side. I don’t think the assistant was doing it from the air; at least, not as far as I have read. Otherwise, we might have some interesting pics from the air.

    By the way, a look at the Balloon Corps escapades along the Potomac below Washington can be found in “The Confederate Blockade of Washington, D.C., 1861-62.” I bought a copy on Amazon.

    • Dick Stanley says:

      Thanks for the earlier link. You may have already seen the one below but it speaks to the Confederate version of the balloons you mentioned (scroll to the bottom) which seems to have been only one, actually, and it didn’t work well.


      In addition to the Rebs (according to Longstreet) having no silk for the balloons, Lowe had developed a portable (well, drawn by horses) system of creating hydrogen for the balloons which the Rebs also didn’t have.

  3. Craig Swain says:

    The Civil War Trails marker on the Maryland side of Edwards Ferry mention the ballooning episode (sort of shoe-horned in with a narrative about the 1863 crossing).

    The interesting back story to the ballooning opposite Leesburg, in my opinion, is the supporting logistics. The balloons needed hydrogen. The preferred method of production involved sulfuric acid. For the first deployments (including over to your Lewinsville area, Ron) the balloons were inflated at the Navy Yard and handled over the Potomac via bridges.

    Later the Navy Yard’s shops had built a set of wagon mounted field “generators” to produce hydrogen. So when deployed to Poolesville, these wagons loaded with acid were trucked around to inflate the balloons filled with flammable gas. Oh, the days before OSHA and HAZMAT regulations.

  4. Dick Stanley says:

    Indeed, those wagons were the key to making the balloon corps efficient. Longstreet said their one balloon had to be fueled at the Richmond city gas works and then conveyed on a flat car by train to the field.

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