The First Battles: April 1861 to February 1862

Movements in the West

Which side deployed the first balloons in war?

It might be more accurate to ask which side deployed the first successful balloons: those that went up and stayed there for a time. When the war began, Thaddeus Lowe of New Hampshire offered his services to the Union. Labeling himself Professor Lowe, he claimed that the balloon offered superior types of reconnaissance. General Winfield Scott was quite dim on the prospect, and it took some pushing from Lincoln to make this a reality.

Lowe had a balloon ready by the Battle of Bull Run, but the weather was against him that day. Two weeks later, he brought General George B. McClellan aloft, probably the first time a commanding general had ever made an ascent. Unfortunately, that aerial reconnaissance reinforced McClellan’s natural disposition to believe that his foe was stronger than was truly the case. Believing that the Confederates had large artillery batteries in and around Manassas, Virginia, McClellan continued to delay. For their part, the Confederates quickly recognized the value of balloon reconnaissance, but they had neither the materials nor a person as dedicated to the task. Control of the “air” usually went to the North, which made little use of its advantage.


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