Flightlines

This week in history

Reviewing history in the military, the Air Force and triumphs and misadventures in airpower.

Copy of the telegraph Lowe sent Lincoln from the air in 1861. Screenshot via Smithsonian Channel (YouTube).

In October 1861, the Union Army Balloon Corps was activated as part of the Union Army during the American Civil War.

The Balloon Corps was essentially an early form of reconnaissance conducted from a hot air balloon. How did this idea come about?

Aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe was in the middle of experimenting a transatlantic crossing by hot air balloon. With the onset of the war, his attempts were interrupted. Instead, he was introduced to President Abraham Lincoln and offered his aviation expertise – he gave Lincoln the ability to see what could be done from the air.

According to the Smithsonian Channel, Lowe sent the world’s first airborne, telegraphed message from 500 feet in the air to Lincoln in the White House.

He ended up building seven balloons with complimenting hydrogen generators, which were transported on wagons in the field.  Once a balloon was filled, the aeronaut traveling with the Army was raised into the air and would observe troop movements. Being within enemy territory was risky, but no injuries were ever reported.

Lowe’s balloons made over 3,000 reconnaissance flights between 1861 and 1863. Commanding generals from George B. McClellan to George Armstrong Custer used the balloons.

But besides Lowe, it was President Lincoln who made it possible.

“There would not have been a Balloon Corps if it had not been for Abraham Lincoln,” says Tom Crouch, senior curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

Crouch dubbed the feat as “Mr. Lincoln’s Air Force.”

Learn more about the Balloon Corps from the Smithsonian’s video below:

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