Balloon Reconnaissance Marks 150th Anniversary

WASHINGTON — The intel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance and recon­nais­sance sup­port crit­i­cal to oper­a­tions in Afghanistan got its start 150 years ago this month, when a bal­loon­ist showed then-Pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln how a gas-filled bal­loon could help the Union Army pre­vail in the Civ­il War.
Thad­deus Lowe met with Lin­coln June 11, 1861, to pitch the con­cept of bal­loon recon­nais­sance.

Thaddeus Lowe's balloon Enterprise, which he demonstrated to President Abraham Lincoln, is inflated in Cincinnati in 1861
Thad­deus Lowe’s bal­loon Enter­prise, which he demon­strat­ed to Pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln, is inflat­ed in Cincin­nati in 1861.
Pho­to cour­tesy of the Smith­son­ian Nation­al Air and Space Muse­um
Click to enlarge
Thaddeus Lowe inflates his balloon Intrepid during the Civil War's Battle of Fair Oaks in Virginia
Thad­deus Lowe inflates his bal­loon Intre­pid dur­ing the Civ­il War’s Bat­tle of Fair Oaks in Vir­ginia.
Pho­to cour­tesy of the Smith­son­ian Nation­al Air and Space Muse­um
Click to enlarge

The idea was­n’t total­ly new, explained Tom Crouch, cura­tor for lighter-than-air air­craft at the Smithsonian’s Nation­al Air and Space Muse­um here. The French first used bal­loons in 1794 to observe Dutch and French move­ments dur­ing the Bat­tle of Fleu­rus.

Lowe got his chance to show Lin­coln the balloon’s ISR capa­bil­i­ties as report­ed his sight­ings from a teth­ered bal­loon as it float­ed 500 feet over Wash­ing­ton. Lowe took a teleg­ra­ph­er and a light­weight tele­graph set with him in the balloon’s bas­ket, and he deliv­ered reports to the White House via the War Depart­ment, Crouch said.

“He could see 25 miles in every direc­tion, and was able to report on what he was see­ing in the mil­i­tary camps below,” Crouch said. “He demon­strat­ed the fact that if you could get above the bat­tle­field, you could see a lot of use­ful things: where the ene­my was and what the ene­my was doing. Obvi­ous­ly, that was incred­i­bly use­ful infor­ma­tion.”

Con­vinced that bal­loons could pro­vide a crit­i­cal advan­tage on the bat­tle­field, Lin­coln gave the War Depart­ment the go-ahead to estab­lish the Union Bal­loon Corps. It stood up four months lat­er, pro­vid­ing the Unit­ed States’ first “air force” and deliv­er­ing the nation’s first aer­i­al recon­nais­sance capa­bil­i­ty, Crouch said.

“Some of the most impor­tant gen­er­als of the war loved the bal­loons and appre­ci­at­ed their val­ue in what they could deliv­er,” he said. “They found it gen­uine­ly use­ful in sup­port­ing what they were doing.”

But the Bal­loon Corps oper­at­ed for just two years before it was dis­band­ed in 1863, the vic­tim of bureau­cra­cy as well as logis­tics. It was run by a civil­ian orga­ni­za­tion that was­n’t able to work smooth­ly with the Army. Fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing things was the fact that the bal­loons required exten­sive logis­ti­cal sup­port to move and inflate, and an entire com­pa­ny of sol­diers to oper­ate.

Anoth­er chal­lenge — one mil­i­tary mem­bers con­tin­ue to strug­gle to over­come today — was to get the intel­li­gence col­lect­ed from the bal­loons to the ground troops who need­ed it as quick­ly as pos­si­ble.

After the demise of the Bal­loon Corps, bal­loon recon­nais­sance began to flour­ish in Europe, Crouch said. And 150 years lat­er, in an age of super­son­ic air­craft and satel­lites, Crouch said bal­loons con­tin­ue to pro­vide crit­i­cal intel­li­gence, recon­nais­sance and sur­veil­lance in ongo­ing mil­i­tary oper­a­tions. Now unmanned, they’re equipped with cam­eras, elec­tron­ic sen­sors and com­mu­ni­ca­tion equip­ment to gath­er intel­li­gence and pro­vide com­mu­ni­ca­tions links.

Ash­ton B. Carter, under­sec­re­tary of defense for acqui­si­tion, tech­nol­o­gy and logis­tics, has worked tire­less­ly to pro­vide more of this “eyes in the sky” capa­bil­i­ty to ground forces in Afghanistan. This spring, he announced plans to increase the num­ber of aerostats to sup­port coun­terin­sur­gency oper­a­tions and pro­vide increased force pro­tec­tion.

“We are going to be, this sum­mer, increas­ing many-fold the num­ber of aero­stat-borne cam­eras,” he said. “They’re ter­rif­ic.”

“Bal­loons are still with us, still pro­vid­ing recon­nais­sance for warfight­ers,” Crouch said. “One hun­dred and fifty years lat­er, bal­loons are still per­form­ing the func­tion they did in 1861.”

The Smith­son­ian Nation­al Air and Space Muse­um will mark the 150th anniver­sary of Lowe’s demon­stra­tion and the birth of the Union Bal­loon Corps tomor­row on the Nation­al Mall.

Re-enac­tors will por­tray Lowe, Lin­coln and Union sol­diers as they demon­strate a 19,000-cubic-foot net­ted gas bal­loon, built in 1941 to close­ly repli­cate Lowe’s, offi­cials said. The Air and Space Muse­um also will present pre­sen­ta­tions about bal­loon­ing and espi­onage dur­ing the Civ­il War and give vis­i­tors hands-on edu­ca­tion­al activ­i­ties inside the muse­um.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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