Civil War Spy Balloons

By Brian D. Kowell
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2023, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in April 2023.

Look up in the sky. What do you see? A bird? A plane? A spy balloon? Recently a Chinese spy balloon was seen crossing our skies, only to be later shot down by an F-22 fighter jet. Using balloons to spy are not unique to the Chinese. Their use dates back to the 18th century.

Chinese spy balloon

The American Civil War saw both sides use balloons. They were employed in the Eastern and Western Theaters as well as along the southern coast. The North, with their greater resources, predominated the field, or should I say skies. The balloons and their operators were civilians employed by the military under the Bureau of Topographical Engineers. Not being officially in the army, this would cause command problems in the future. Also, if downed behind enemy lines the operators risked being treated as spies.

The balloons were used for reconnaissance. They collected intelligence by divining the enemy’s position, areas of strength, movements, and estimated size of forces. They were also used to direct fire control for land or water-borne batteries. There is no record of them being used as weapons, dropping projectiles on the enemy. Confederate General E.P. Alexander wrote that “skilled observers in balloons could give information of priceless value.”1

There were multiple balloons with colorful names such as Intrepid, Enterprise, Excelsior, and Eagle to name a few. They were similarly constructed and varied in sizes. The largest balloons took approximately three hours to inflate. Below each balloon was suspended a basket to carry from one to five men. Each was accompanied by portable hydrogen-producing equipment in horse-drawn wagons. Iron filings were mixed with sulfuric acid in the tanks to produce hydrogen, which was then run through rubber hoses to fill the balloons. They were usually tethered by multiple ropes, which helped control them. There were at least three recorded instances of the balloons being on a ship or flatboat, thus becoming one of the first aircraft carriers.2

Thaddeus Lowe

The civilian aeronauts were intrepid men such as John La Mountain, John Steiner, the brothers James and Ezra Allen, and John Starkweather, among others. The most famous was the 33-year-old, New Hampshire-born, Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe. He was described as six-foot-one, well-proportioned with massive shoulders. He had fair skin, an aquiline nose, strong chin, and piercing blue eyes. He wore his thick black hair long, and it contrasted with his auburn mustache. In 1854 he decided to study and practice aeronautics and built his first balloon in 1858. He had plans to cross the Atlantic by balloon.

On a test flight overland from Cincinnati to the South Carolina coast in 1861, he landed to much fanfare in Unionville, South Carolina. Packing his equipment on a train, his plan was to head to Columbia, the state capital, before continuing on to Washington. He arrived in Columbia on April 22, 1861, one week after the firing on Fort Sumter. Unfortunately, he was arrested at the station platform as a spy and accompanied to jail “by a lusty throng of ardent secessionists” threatening to “tar and feather the damn Yankee” or to hang him from the nearest tree. He was saved by some professors from South Carolina College who knew of his exploits in aeronautics. They vouched that Lowe was not politically connected, and he was subsequently released.3

Lowe traveled to Washington and demonstrated his balloon to President Abraham Lincoln. Using strong field glasses and accompanied by a trained telegrapher, Lowe demonstrated that intelligence could be rapidly transmitted from the balloon to any distant telegraph station. In the absence of telegraph, intelligence could be relayed via signal flags. The president gave him a letter of introduction asking General Winfield Scott to see him.4

When General George B. McClellan replaced Scott, Lowe gained McClellan’s confidence, even making an ascension with him. Other officers followed McClellan such as Irvin McDowell, Fitz John Porter, Samuel Heintzelman, and George Custer. As a reporter who accompanied Lowe on a later ascension wrote, “He…counted the number of tents in each encampment and fort…the whole force may be easily ascertained. The lines of fire dotted over the surface of the earth may be traced with precision from a balloon with a strong glass.”5

John La Mountain

Because of Lowe’s relationship with these officers, a jealous rivalry between La Mountain and Lowe soon proved to be embarrassing and troublesome. Like two quarreling schoolchildren being sent to the principal’s office, they met with General Fitz John Porter to broker a truce. Porter told La Mountain, “It is his [General McClellan’s] wish that all balloons shall be under the superintendence of Mr. Lowe. Upon this basis if you can come to an understanding with Mr. Lowe, it may be of interest to yourself and the service.” As one historian pointed out, Porter might as well have suggested that La Mountain come to an understanding with General Beauregard or President Davis. As a result, McClellan ordered La Mountain dismissed from the service.6

Thaddeus Lowe in the Intrepid

Soon Lowe’s balloons were a familiar sight along the Potomac line. His balloons took observations of the Confederates positioned on Munson’s and Upton’s Hills, within sight of Washington, making detailed sketches of what they saw. While photography from the balloons was discussed, historian F. Stansbury Haydon concluded that there is no reliable documentation to substantiate its use in balloons during the Civil War. General James Longstreet complained of “floating balloons over our heads.” A soldier in the 53rd North Carolina scrawled in his diary, “We see the Yankee balloon every day reconnoitering our lines.” General P.G.T. Beauregard issued orders for his men to take precautions to “prevent the enemy from discovering by balloons…our advanced commands and outposts. No lights should be kept at night except absolutely necessary [and] tents…ought to be pitched under cover of woods.” Beauregard also ordered dummy cannon (Quaker guns) constructed and extra fires lit to deceive the Yankee eyes in the sky. He asked authorities in Richmond for a balloon with no success. Eventually he obtained one from “private sources” but it proved defective.7

On September 8, 1861, Lowe made an ascension from Arlington. He remained aloft all day and remained aloft after sunset. While aloft he noticed a powerful fixed light appear on Munson’s Hill and a second appearing near Upton’s Hill. These signal lights were answered by a similar light emanating from the windows of a house in Washington. He didn’t know what the lights could mean, until he casually mentioned them at Federal headquarters. It was later discovered that Captain E. P. Alexander, chief signal officer with Beauregard’s army, had established the system to transfer messages from Washington to Beauregard’s army.8

The equipment for inflating a balloon in the field

The spy balloons were becoming irritating and a nuisance. Lacking modern technology like F-22 fighter jets with laser-guided missiles, the Confederates had to resort to artillery and rifle fire to try and bring the balloons down. They positioned cannon as close as they could and tried shooting them down. On the afternoon of August 29 near Arlington, Lowe’s balloon received its baptism of fire. “We sent a rifle shell so near old Lowe,” one Confederate wrote, “and his balloon came down as fast as gravity could bring him.” Lowe ascended again and, despite solid shot and shell whizzing by, was successful reaching an altitude high enough that the anti-aircraft shells couldn’t reach him. Throughout the war, anytime a balloon was seen, Confederates vainly sought to bring it down. While some shells came close to the baskets and through the netting, this occurred most often on initial ascent and last stages of descent.

A drawing depicting Confederates shooting at a balloon

Shots meant for the balloons fell into adjacent areas, sometimes thickly populated with troops. Generals Stoneman and Heintzelman were almost hit by these errant shells, and General Slocum’s cookhouse was destroyed near his headquarters just as breakfast was being prepared, scattering the cooks and kettles. McClellan was almost hit by a 64-pounder at Yorktown. In February 1863, Private David Hogan of the 13th New Hampshire Infantry was on sentry duty “when a shell aimed at Lowe instead hit a cesspool near Hogan covering him with the unpleasant contents. Hogan was not injured but a fellow soldier noted that ‘his clothes and appetite are utterly ruined.'” Despite their attempts, no balloons were shot down during the war.9

Lowe got his revenge. On September 24 at Fort Corcoran, he telegraphed from his balloon to Union batteries below, directing their fire against the Confederate batteries. He recorded that he “made such an accurate fire the enemy was demoralized.”10 Meanwhile, on March 27, 1862, aeronaut John Steiner was also acting as an artillery spot from his balloon, the Eagle, for the Union mortar boats and ironclads in Fleet Commander Andrew Foote’s bombardments at Island Number 10.11

Fitz John Porter

General Fitz John Porter was one of Lowe’s greatest supporters and accompanied the aeronaut on many observations. On April 11, 1862, with the Union army confronting the Confederates along the Warwick line on Virginia’s Peninsula, Porter was anxious to see the latest Confederate positions. Lowe was not to be found. In a hurry, Porter decided to make his own reconnaissance. James Allen, one of Lowe’s assistants, said he would take the general up. With the impatient Porter already in the car, Allen was about to climb in when the single rope tethering it to the ground snapped “with the sound of a pistol” and up shot the balloon.12

Once the balloon reached a certain height it leveled off. Alone, the surprised Porter remained calm and through his powerful eyeglass examined the rebel lines. Unfortunately, the prevailing winds carried the balloon well behind the rebel lines. When he finished, Porter threw some of the sandbags used for ballast over the side. When the balloon rose to 2,000 feet, it caught a current that floated him back over Union lines. To reach the gas valve to descend, he had to precariously balance with his feet on the edge of the basket and holding onto a rope with one hand, opened the valve with the other. The balloon jerked and Porter lost his grip and landed half in the basket.

Porter dragged himself back into the basket with the balloon rapidly descending. The basket was swinging to and fro as the balloon was growing limp and he neared the trees. As the balloon crashed into a tree, Porter grabbed a bough and held on with his arms and legs as the balloon collapsed around him. He had landed in General David Birney’s camp, and his troops soon rescued the exhausted and relieved Porter.13

This was one of the few instances of “free aerial reconnaissance” during the Civil War, and it was totally unplanned. Upon investigation of the incident, it was determined that the causative factor was the use of just a single rope to tether the balloon. Porter found out later that a sergeant of the 50th New York Engineers who helped on Lowe’s ground crew had had some sharp words with his captain the night before. As the captain usually accompanied Lowe, the sergeant had smeared the rope with acid from the batteries, which weakened the rope.14

When he heard of Porter’s harrowing adventure, McClellan wrote to his wife Ellen assuring her “it was a terrible scare [and] you may rest assured of one thing; you won’t catch me in the confounded balloon, nor will I allow any other generals to go up in it.”15

The Intrepid having its lifting gas replenished

By this time the Confederates had a balloon of their own. It was made by Captain Langdon Cheeves in the spring of 1862 in Savannah, Georgia. The captain purchased 40-foot lengths of multi-colored dress silk and sewing them together and varnishing when done, produced the famous “Silk Dress Balloon.” Its official name was the Gazelle. The balloon was shipped to Richmond and forwarded to General Johnston’s Warwick line. John Randolph Bryan, one of General John Bankhead Magruder’s aides, volunteered to go up to spy on the Yankees. Unfortunately, he knew “absolutely nothing about the management of it.”16

On Bryan’s second flight, like Porter, the tether line broke. He remembered that “the balloon jerked upward by great force for about two miles or so it seemed to me. I was breathless and gasping and trembling like a leaf from fear.”17 He was blown over the camp of the 2nd Florida Regiment, who mistook him for a Yankee balloon and sent friendly fire at him. The balloon began to drop rapidly toward the York River. Bryan, thinking he would have a watery landing, quickly stripped off his clothes and boots. Just before touching the water, a sudden gust blew the balloon to shore and he landed rather hard near an apple orchard. It was Bryan’s last flight.18

A drawing depicting a balloon tethered to a barge

During the Seven Days’ Campaign, Lowe’s balloons were headquartered at White House Landing so they could be used overland or up the York River to spy on the Confederates. For the Confederates, the Gazelle was turned over to Lieutenant Colonel E.P. Alexander. He was directed by General Robert E. Lee to spy on Union forces. The balloon was inflated at the Richmond Gas Works and transported on a flatcar along the York River railroad into position. Despite having issues with heights, Alexander followed orders. He witnessed the battle of Gaines’ Mill from above and, without a telegraph, had to descend each time to report.

When McClellan retreated to Malvern Hill, Alexander and the balloon were transferred to the CSS Teaser on the James River to spy. Unfortunately, on July 4, before Alexander could reach General Lee to report from the James River, the Teaser had run aground and was attacked by the Monitor and the Maratanza. Alexander had to swim for shore while the ship’s captain, Hunter Davidson, kindled a fire to blow up the boilers. With the Yankees closing in, he quickly followed Longstreet. But the fire never reached the ship’s boilers, and the ship was captured and towed off along with the Gazelle.19

A drawing depicting the Maratanza attacking the Teaser

Lowe continued to use his balloons at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. One Confederate officer wrote, “Especially did we find the balloons of the enemy [giving us] constant trouble [and forced us to make] some precautions in efforts to conceal our marches.” For example, when Jubal Early’s division marched from the Rappahannock line on their way to Gettysburg, they marched at 1:00 a.m. to avoid the prying eyes of the balloonists. Later, balloonists near Bank’s Ford discovered the “disappearance of two corps on the Confederate left; a line of dust near Salem Church” west of Fredericksburg confirming the enemy was moving toward Culpeper.20

With the loss of McClellan and Porter as his advocates, and with budget constraints, the War Department disbanded the Balloon Corps in August 1863. Lowe had resigned earlier that May. Lowe was receiving the equivalent to a colonel’s pay of $30 per week, and when Captain Cyrus Comstock was assigned to oversee the Balloon Corps, he cut Lowe’s pay to $10 a week. James and Ezra Allen took over for two months before the Balloon Corps was disbanded. As for the Confederates, Beauregard remained an advocate of balloon reconnaissance. He used a balloon operated by Charles Cevor during the siege of Charleston, until it was lost in 1863, and he employed another balloon that watched General Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James bottled up at Bermuda Hundred.21

General E. P. Alexander later wrote, “I have never understood why the enemy abandoned the use of military balloons in 1863, after having used them extensively up to that time. Even if observers never saw anything, they would have been worth all they cost for the annoyance and delays they caused us in trying to keep our movements out of sight.”22 An observation balloon on Little Round Top is an interesting “what-if” to ponder how it might have affected Lee in ordering Longstreet’s march on the second day of Gettysburg.

During the Civil War, balloon technology was in its infancy. Just the same, it showed that controlling the skies could have a profound effect on warfare. Balloons were used for reconnaissance during the two World Wars with success, but were replaced later with U2 spy planes and satellites. It would be 162 years after the Civil War when a Chinese spy balloon traversed our continent and was shot from the sky.

Footnotes (Click on any of the book titles to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)

1. Alexander, E.P., Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edwin Porter Alexander, ed. Gary Gallagher, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill & London, 1989. P.119.

2. The best treatises on Civil War Ballooning are: Haydon, F. Stansbury, Military Ballooning during the Early Civil War, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 1941, (re-print 2000), Evans, Charles M., War of the Aeronauts, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pa., 2002, and Scott, Joseph C., “The Infernal Balloon: Union Aeronautics in the American Civil War,” in Army History, no. 93 (Fall 2014) p. 6,127. Some of the rubber hoses, gum packing, and other similar rubberized materials were purchased from Goodyear Tire & Rubber, Belting and Packing Company, Akron, Ohio. Lowe Papers, MS, John Hopkins Library, p. 254. Haydon, p. 250. An argument can be made that the first such aircraft carrier was used when John La Mountain flew a balloon tethered to the stern of the armed transport Fanny in Hampton Roads off Fortress Monroe on July 27, 1861. The conversion of the USS George Washington Parke Custis to specifically carry balloons and inflating equipment can be classed as the first aircraft carrier in November 1861. John Stiner used his balloon the Eagle to help direct the Union’s mortar division at Island No. 10 on March 25, 1862.

3. Haydon, Military Ballooning, pp. 160-166, 258-268, 278. Lowe’s MS Memoirs, p. 59.

4. The telegrapher was employed by the American Telegraph Company owned by the father of General Daniel Butterfield. It was later renamed AT&T. President Lincoln’s Card to General Scott, Lowe Collection, U.S. National Museum, No. 30915-L. facsimile Haydon, Plate XIX.

5. Commercial Advertiser, New York, August 17, 1861.

6. Haydon, Military Ballooning, pp. 143 -153. National Archives, MS Letterbook of the Army of the Potomac, February 19, 1862. I, pp. 671-672, entry 1408. -the-aeronauts-civil-war-balloon-reconnaissance.htm. Evans, Charles M., “The Rivalry of the Aeronauts: Civil War Balloon Reconnaissance.” Essential Civil War Curriculum is Copyright 2013, Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech. Beaumont, Frederick E., “On Balloon Reconnaissance: As Practiced by the American Army,” paper read at Chatham, UK, Nov. 14, 1862. Reprinted as Military Ballooning, 1862, Aviation Press, Middlesex, England, 1967.

7. Longstreet, James, From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America, J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, 1896. p.60, Leon, Louis, Diary of a Tar Heel Confederate Soldier, Charlotte, North Carolina, 1913. p. 29. Jordan to Longstreet, September 2, 1861, MS Letterbook, 1st Corps, p. 124 Beauregard Papers. Haydon, Military Ballooning, p. 330, 217. The unpredictable weather affecting the jostling of the basket made it virtually impossible to take a quality photograph with the required exposure time. Roman, Alfred, The Military Operations of General Beauregard in the War Between the States, 1861-1865, Vol. 1, De Capo Press, NY, Reprint, 1994. p. 136.

8. Alexander, Fighting for the Confederacy, p. 55. Roman, Alfred, The Military Operations of General Beauregard in the War Between the States, 1861-1865 Vol. 1, DeCapo Press, NY, 1994, Reprint p. 153. New York Herald, December 10, 1861. A powerful telescope borrowed from Charleston was given to Confederate signal officer E.P. Bryan of Maryland, who was send to Washington in disguise and ordered to find a room with an available window to install himself and transmit intelligence.

9. E.P. Alexander to his father, September 8, 1861, MS Mackall Collection, Library of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD. New York Times, August 30, 1861. Boston Journal, August 30, 1861. www.history 6/12/2006. From an article by Ben Fenton, America’s Civil War, September 2001. Visited 2/18/23. Haydon, Military Ballooning, pp.203-204, 342-343. Despite erroneous reports in Southern newspapers, no balloons were shot down during the war.

10. Lowe, Thaddeus, “My Balloons in Peace and War,” Transcribed by Augustine Lowe Brownbeck, unpublished manuscript, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C., 1936. p. 80.

11. Haydon, Military Ballooning, pp. 394-397.

12. Evans, Charles M., War of the Aeronauts, “Unplanned Flight of General Fitz John Porter, April 11, 1862,” Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA., pp. 181-183.

13. Ibid., John Quarstein. There is also a YouTube video about the incident ( On General Porter’s equestrian statue in his home town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, one of the bas reliefs depicts his famous balloon ride of April 11, 1862.

14. Snedden, Robert Knox, Eye of the Storm: A Civil War Odyssey, Charles F. Bryan, Jr. & Nelson D. Lankford, editors, The Free Press, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Singapore, 2000. Entry April 12, 1862 pp. 45-46. Haydon, Military Ballooning, p.118, 128. John La Mountain, along with Colonel Clinton G. Colgate of the 15th New York Engineers, had the first unharnessed flight from General Franklin’s headquarters at Cloud’s Mill on October 4, 1861. He flew behind Union lines over the Capitol in Washington as a demonstration. Colonel Clinton G. Colgate of the 15th New York Engineers accompanied La Mountain later on an untethered flight.

15. Sears, Stephen, ed., The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan 1860-1865, Houghton Mifflin hardcourt, NY, 1989. p. 235.

16. Alexander, E. P., Military Memoirs of a Confederate, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907. p.172. Alexander, E.P., Fighting for the Confederacy, pp.116-119. “Captain Langdon Cheeves Jr. and the Confederate Silk Dress Balloon,” ed., J.H. Easteby, The Southern Historical and Genealogical Magazine, Vol. 45, No. 1, Jan. 1944, published by the South Carolina Historical Society. pp. 1-11.

17. Bryan, John Randolph, “Balloons Used for Scout Duty in CSA,” Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 33, April, 1914. p. 33. The name “Silk Dress Balloon” was coined by General James Longstreet. In his article “Our March Against Pope” in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, XXXI (Feb. 1886), pp. 601-602, he incorrectly said that word went out to collect all the silk dresses in the Confederacy to make the balloon.

18. Bryan, pp.34-35.

19. Alexander, Fighting for the Confederacy, pp. 116-119. Keeler, William Frederick, Aboard the USS Monitor: 1862: The Letters of Acting Assistant Paymaster William Frederick Keller, U.S. Navy, Robert W. Daley, ed., Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1962. p. 184, letter to his wife Anna, July 1862. Pieces of the Gazelle can be seen at the American Civil War Museum site (

20. Alexander, E.P., Military Memoirs of a Confederate, p. 173. Mingus, Scott L. & Eric Wittenberg, “If We Are Striking for Pennsylvania”: The Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac March to Gettysburg, Vol. 1, June 3-21, 1863, Savas Beatie, California, 2022. p. 9.

21. Fenton, Ben, America’s Civil War, Sept. 2001. Haydon, Military Ballooning, pp. 291-307. Grant, Ulysses S., The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, ed. John Y. Simon, Illinois University Press, Vol. 12, p. 38. Comstock was assigned to oversee the Balloon Corps when it was transferred to the control of the Quartermasters Department.

22. Rhees, W.J., “Reminiscences of Ballooning in the Civil War,” Chautauquan, (New York) Vol. 27, 1898. p.257.