Military Aviation, the Beginning

American military aviation began almost 149 years ago, in the early days of the Civil War, when the Army for the first time employed balloons for military purposes. The French Army had used balloons for reconnaissance as early as 1794 and American balloonists primarily utilized them for the same purpose.


In April 1861, two members of Rhode Island’s 1st Regiment answered Lincoln’s call for troops–James Allen, a balloonist, and Dr. William H. Helme, a dentist, carried two of Allen’s balloons from Providence, RI to Washington DC. Then on 9 June, they made the Army’s first captive balloon ascent. It was stealthy for it’s day, as no one reported being able to see it on radar–no, not a one.


On 12 June 1861, John Wise of PA offered to build a balloon for the Union Army for $300. Maj. Hartman Bathe, chief of the Topographic Engineers, later told Wise to increase the size to 20,000 cubic-feet, and to use silk. Wise agreed but the cost skyrocketed to $850. This established the two great traditions of military aviation: late design modifications and production costs overruns.


21 July, Wise’s balloon tasked for observation duty in the Battle of Manassas. A ground crew walked the inflated balloon to Fairfax Rd, where Major A. J. Myer, Chief Signal Officer, fastened it to a wagon, and against the advice of Wise, made haste, snagging the balloon on roadside trees, tearing great holes in the bag. Thus, airpower’s first hasty decision by a non-Airmen, who ignored Wise advice.


Wise repaired the damaged balloon. Five days later, while being towed to Ball’s Crossroads, it was blown against telegraph wires, cutting the towropes, and the balloon floated away toward the Confederate lines. To prevent its capture by the enemy, Union troops shot it down near the Lee mansion at Arlington. Was this the first AAA fire (a.k.a. Arlington’s Anti-Aviation fire)?


Neither the Allen nor the Wise balloons were satisfactory, mainly because each needed to be filled with coal gas, from the city mains, and towed inflated to the area of operations. Wise designed a portable hydrogen generator to permit inflation in the field and widen the area of operations.  While he urged the army to construct a unit, leadership was more content to blame him for the disasters and he was fired.


So what happened to Wise? He returned to his home in Lancaster, raised a cavalry troop, and rejoined the army, but after several months of service his health failed and he was compelled to retire from active duty. Seems like a sad ending, but at least he pressed toward his dreams for as long as his health would allow him, which is probably the best any of us can do.


In May 1861 another aeronaut, John La Mountain, twice offered his services, two balloons, and a portable gas generator to the Union Army. The War Department ignored his letters, but on 5 June Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, with headquarters at Ft. Monroe, offered La Mountain a job as an aerial observer. John La Mountain was persistence, wasn’t he? Did you know persistence is one of the tenets of airpower?


I’ll talk more about the tenets of airpower in a later article, but for now let’s go back to the aeronauts of the Civil War.


La Mountain became the Army’s only free-lance balloonist. During his first military captive ascent in the Atlantic a stiff wind prevented him from reaching the altitude necessary for observation. But six days later (31 July 1861) he rose to 1,400 feet to observe a radius of 30 miles around Hampton and reported the Confederate forces were much weaker than previously reported by land reconnaissance.


On 3 August 1861, La Mountain’s balloon was moored to the transport ship Funny, which towed it into the Potomac River where it made the first ascension from a boat. This was not the birth of Naval aeronautics, as the Army owned and operated the Funny. Army boats? Why yes, during World War II the U.S. Army operated over 127,790 ships and watercraft.


La Mountain and the Union Army failed to keep General Magruder’s Confederate forces from burning Hampton, but La Mountain did escape, along with many thousands of Union troops.  La Mountain and his large balloon Saratoga transferred to the Army of the Potomac where La Mountain tried to build support for his services by giving General officers rides. Nothing like that is done today.


In October of 1861, La Mountain made free ascensions, via prevailing east wind to fly over Confederate forces, and a west wind at higher altitudes, to return. After observations, he jettisoned ballast, the balloon rose to the eastbound current of air, carrying him back to his own lines; then he’d release gas to land. Using maneuver, a principle of war, he increased the balloon’s effectiveness.


La Mountain had little control during landings. On 18 October, after returning to the Union lines, he descended in the area of operations controlled by Brigadier General Louis Blenker’s German Brigade, and was welcomed with a volley of shots, riddling the lower part of the balloon, foreshadowing the German AAA of WWII, or maybe not.


On 16 November La Mountain’s Saratoga was blown from its moorings and lost over the Confederate lines, leaving him with only the less capable Atlantic.  After failing to beg, borrow, or buy a replacement balloon, on 19 February 1862, General George B. McClellan dismissed La Mountain from the service.


John La Mountain was one of the first to make significant aerial observations for the Union Army. As a result of his observations, Confederate General Beauregard ordered his division commander, General Longstreet, to employee camouflage, since the deception of dummy guns could not be assured under the eyes of the federal balloons. There’s an idea that caught on.


Thaddeus S. C. Lowe had planned a transatlantic balloon flight, but changed his focus after a 20 April 1861 flight in his Enterprise from Cincinnati to Unionville, SC. The war posed difficulties, but eventually he was permitted to return by way of Columbia, SC, and Louisville, Kentucky. Convinced the war would be long, he decided to organize a balloon corps and offer his services to the Union.


With a little help from editor Murat Halstead, Lowe met with Lincoln on 11 June. 7 days later, Lowe sent the first telegraphic message ever from a balloon, using a wired key in his balloon via a line to the Alexandria telegraph office to the White House. Others messages were sent to the War Department.  Lowe leveraged technology for operational advantage, a hallmark of airpower ever since.


On 26 June 1861, Lowe was asked to submit a report on his proposed operations and an estimate of the cost of constructing another balloon at $500. Soon afterwards, however, the order for a government balloon was given to Wise, who underbid Lowe by almost $200. Remember him? Cost overruns pushed the actual cost to $850, after the Army modified the design.


Though Wise beat him on the bid, Lowe continued to give demonstrations near the Smithsonian Institution. Meanwhile, General McDowell, preparing to advance into Virginia, expected Wise and his balloon but when on July 17 he had not reported, Captain Whipple ordered Lowe to join McDowell’s Army.  As Lowe inflated his balloon, Wise arrived and his balloon was sent forward instead.  Imagine Lowe’s frustration.


When Lowe learned Wise’s balloon was out of commission, he took the initiative to go to the front with his own balloon.  Before he could get there, Gen McDowell had been defeated and on that afternoon of 21 July, Lowe met the retreating Union Army and returned with it to Arlington. Aerospace power can’t save an Army if it’s not used.


On the 24th, Lowe flew from Fort Corcoran to investigate rumors of a march on Washington by the victorious Confederate Army. His report calmed fears at the Capital–no force was approaching. Having defeated the Union soldiers, many Confederates had thought the war was over and they could go home. Little did they know, it had only just begun.


So there we have the first two months of military aviation, interesting how aerospace power has progressed so far in the last 149 years, but can still relate to those fledgling years. 


You might have noticed, I haven’t been writing much lately.  I needed to write something, and the beginning of military aviation history was a great place to start.


It just makes sense.










One Response to “Military Aviation, the Beginning”

  1. baidu says:

    Love this…

    A marvelous piece of military history. Very good.

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