Balloon Pioneer Thaddeus Lowe

Professor Lowe Led the Union Army's Balloon Corps in the Civil War

Photograph of Civil War balloon being inflated
Getty Images

Thaddeus Lowe was a self-taught scientist who became a pioneer of ballooning in America. His exploits included the creation of the first aerial unit in the United States military, the Union Army's Balloon Corps.

His original goal, in the years just prior to the Civil War, was to pilot a balloon across the Atlantic from the United States to Britain.

One of his test flights, in the spring of 1861, took Lowe into Confederate territory, where he was nearly killed for being a Union spy.

Returning to the North, he offered his services to the federal government.

Lowe's balloons soon became a fascinating novelty during the early years of the war. He proved that an observer in the basket of a balloon could provide useful battlefield intelligence. Commanders on the ground, however, did not generally take him seriously.

President Abraham Lincoln, however, was a noted fan of new technology. And he was impressed by the idea of using balloons to survey battlefields and spot enemy troop formations. And Lincoln appointed Thaddeus Lowe to lead a new unit of "aeronauts" who would ascend in balloons.

Early Life

Thaddeus Sobieski Coulincourt Lowe was born in New Hampshire on August 20, 1832. His unusual names were due to being named for a character in a popular novel at the time.

As a child, Lowe had little opportunity for education. Borrowing books, he essentially educated himself, and developed a special fascination for chemistry.

While attending a chemistry lecture on gases he became fascinated by the idea of balloons.

In the 1850s, when Lowe was in his 20s, he became a traveling lecturer, calling himself Professor Lowe. He would speak about chemistry and ballooning, and he began building balloons and giving exhibitions of their ascents.

Turning into something of a showman, Lowe would take paying customers aloft.

Goal of Crossing the Atlantic By Balloon

By the late 1850s Lowe, who had become convinced that high altitude air currents were always moving eastward, devised a plan to build a huge balloon that could fly high across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe.

According to Lowe's own account, which he published decades later, there was substantial interested in being able to carry information quickly across the Atlantic. The first transatlantic telegraph cable had already failed, and it could take weeks for messages to cross the ocean via ship. So a balloon service was thought to have potential.

As a test flight, Lowe took a large balloon he'd built to Cincinnati, Ohio. He planned to fly on the eastward air currents to Washington, D.C. In the early morning of April 20, 1861 Lowe, with his balloon inflated with gas from the local gas works in Cincinnati, took off into the sky.

Sailing along at altitudes between 14,000 and 22,000 feet, Lowe crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains. At one point he lowered the balloon to shout at farmers, asking what state he was in. The farmers finally looked up, screamed, "Virginia," and than ran in fright.

Lowe kept sailing along throughout the day, and finally picked what appeared to be a safe place to land. He was over Pea Ridge, South Carolina, and according to his own account, people were shooting at him and his balloon.

Lowe remembered the local people accusing him of "being an inhabitant of some ethereal or infernal region." After convincing people he wasn't the devil, he was eventually accused of being a Yankee spy.

Fortunately, a resident of a nearby town had seen Lowe before and had even ascended in one of his balloons at a exhibition. And he vouched that Lowe was a dedicated scientist and not a threat to anyone.

Lowe eventually was able to return to Cincinnati by train, bringing his balloon with him.

Thaddeus Lowe Offered His Services to the U.S. Military

Lowe returned to the North just as the Civil War began, and he traveled to Washington, D.C.

and offered to help the Union cause. During a demonstration attended by President Lincoln, Lowe ascended in his balloon, observed Confederate troops across the Potomac through a spyglass, and telegraphed a report down to the ground.

Convinced that balloons could be useful as reconnaissance tools, Lincoln appointed Lowe as the head of the Union Army's Balloon Corps.

On September 24, 1861, Lowe ascended in a balloon over Arlington, Virginia, and was able to see formations of Confederate troops about three miles away. The information Lowe telegraphed to the ground was used to aim Union guns at the Confederates. And that was apparently the first time troops on the ground were able to aim at a target they couldn't see themselves.

The Union Army Balloon Corps Did Not Last Long

Lowe was eventually able to build a fleet of seven balloons. But the Balloon Corps proved problematic. It was difficult to fill the balloons with gas in the field, though Lowe eventually developed a mobile device that could produce hydrogen gas.

And the intelligence gathered by the "aeronauts" was also typically ignored or mishandled. For instance, some historians contend that information provided by Lowe's aerial observations only caused the overly-cautious Union commander, Gen. George McClellan, to panic during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862.

In 1863, with the government concerned about the financial costs of the war, Thaddeus Lowe was called to testify about money spent on the Balloon Corps. Amid some controversy about the usefulness of Lowe and his balloons, and even accusations of financial malfeasance, Lowe resigned. The Balloon Corps was then disbanded.

Thaddeus Lowe's Career After the Civil War

After the Civil War, Thaddeus Lowe was involved in a number of business ventures, including the manufacture of ice and the building of a tourist railroad in California. He was successful in business, though he eventually lost his fortune.

Thaddeus Lowe died in Pasadena, California on January 16, 1913. Newspaper obituaries referred to him as having been an "aerial scout" during the Civil War.

While Thaddeus Lowe and the Balloon Corps did not make a large impact on the Civil War, his efforts marked the first time the U.S. military attempted flight. And in later wars the concept of aerial observation was proven to be extremely valuable.