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U.S. Civil War Aeronautics (1861-1865): A Resource Guide

This guide brings together various publications about the use of balloons for aerial reconnaissance and mapping during the United States Civil War (1861-1865).


Prof. T. Lowe making a balloon ascension on a reconnoitring expedition to Vienna, Va. 1861. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Civil War aeronautics was the use of balloons for military aerial reconnaissance, mostly by the Union (Federal Army) from 1861-1863. The men who 'flew' the balloons were called aeronauts and they were assisted by a crew or squad of military men under the command of a commissioned officer. The squad assisted in escorting and taking care of the balloon, as well as holding the balloon in place, inflating it, and transporting it. They also helped relaying observations to the field commanders. In general, this semi-military branch was called the Aeronautical Corps or the Union Army of the Balloon Corps. The Balloon Corps of the Army of the Potomac became the first official use of aviation in American military operations and was the forerunner to the United States Air Force.

Most historians agree that the history of the military balloon in the U.S. began in the spring of 1861 when President Lincoln learned about the skills and expertise of Professor Thaddeus Lowe, a scientist and expert balloon maker. President Lincoln summoned Lowe to Washington for a demonstration of his ballooning skills and to investigate the possibility of using balloons in aerial reconnaissance. Lowe inflated and wired his Enterprise balloon on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and sent Lincoln a telegram. That night, Professor Lowe became the first Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army of the Balloon Corps and today he is known as the father of the Air Force.