A lithograph depicting the battle of Fair Oaks. Lowe’s balloon can be seen in the upper right. From the Library of Congress.

Forget cyber spying — back in the 1860s, balloon spying was all the rage. During the Civil War, the Union Army used several hot air balloons to spy on Rebel forces. Although the Civil War wasn’t the first time hot air balloons were used to gather intel on opposing forces, it was the first time that military balloon reconnaissance was paired with telegraph technology, enabling swift communication between balloonists and those stationed on the ground.

-Images from the Library of Congress.

The man to really get hot air balloon spying off the ground during the Civil War was Thaddeus S. C. Lowe. Lowe was an avid balloonist that hoped to one day cross the Atlantic Ocean via hot air balloon. In April of 1861, Lowe–usually referred to as Professor Lowe– made a well publicized, 1200 mile trip from Cincinnati, O.H. to Columbia, S.C. in a balloon. A month later, The Barre Gazette published a colorful first-hand account of the journey, detailing Lowe’s botched first attempt at landing and describing the terror and confusion felt by those who witnessed the descent of a strange floating orb in their town. (It really is a great article.)


ADVENTURES OF AN AERONAUT IN THE SOUTH – Professor Lowe describes the confusion and terror of onlookers as he landed his balloon in Spartanburg S.C. during his 1200 mile balloon journey. Published by The Barre Gazette on April 25, 1861.

By June of 1861 Professor Lowe’s balloon experimentation attracted the attention of governmental officials, and newspapers reported of a “temporary arrangement” between the Government and Professor. Lowe brought his balloon to Washington to perform a series of “balloon experiments” to test the viability of balloon reconnaissance. The experiments included equipping the balloon with a telegraph and telegrapher so Lowe might communicate his observations to the ground below. The following telegraph was sent from Professor Lowe to Abraham Lincoln during one of the balloon tests conducted on June 16, 1861.

Telegraph from Lowe to Lincoln

Telegraph from Lowe to Lincoln dated June 16, 1861.

In August of 1861 Lowe’s trial ascensions were proven so valuable to the government, that he was ordered to create a special balloon for army use. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the new balloon would measure 38 feet in diameter and 45 feet tall. Fifty women were employed to make the balloon in a period of ten days.

Two months later, in October of 1861, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that “the balloon is certainly a great annoyance to the Rebels, and they have fallen back…the Professor [Lowe] will be too much for them, as he is now in Philadelphia (by direction of the secretary of war) constructing four more balloons, which will be stationed at various points along the enemy’s lines.” That same month the Army Balloon Corps was founded and orders for the creation for more balloons were issued.

-Newspaper articles from the Philadelphia Inquirer describing the construction of Professor Lowe’s balloon and balloons subsequently constructed.

The Army Balloon Corps continued to serve the Union throughout the war but was disbanded in 1863, following Lowe’s resignation. It seems, judging from newspaper clippings like the one below, Lowe spent the rest of the war exhibiting his war balloons in various cities across the United States.


Advertisement published on Nov. 8, 1864 in the amusement section of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Barre Gazette, 1861
Brady, Matthew B. Professor Lowe’s military balloon near Gaines Mill, Virginia. Photograph. June 1, 1862. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Accessed July 2, 2013.
Fair Oaks, Va. Prof. Thaddeus S. Lowe observing the battle from his balloon “Intrepid”. Photograph. May 31, 1862. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Accessed July 2, 2013.
Fair Oaks, Virginia. Prof. Thaddeus S. Lowe replenishing balloon INTREPID from balloon CONSTITUTION. Photograph. May 1862. Civil War Glass Negatives and Prints. Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Accessed July 2, 2013.
Philadelphia Inquirer 1861-1865
Professor Lowe’s balloon “Eagle” in a storm. Illustration. c1861. Civil War. Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Accessed July 2, 2013.
Prof. T. Lowe making a balloon ascension on a reconnoitring expedition to Vienna, Va. Photograph. 1861. Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Accessed July 2, 2013.