LINCOLN’S FLYING SPIES: Thaddeus Lowe and the Civil War Balloon Corps, Gail Jarrow, 2010, Calkins Creek, 109pp, index, bibliography, notes, timeline, photos
Young readers and old will find this account of the Civil War Air Force an imagination-stirring look at a rarely noted recorded aspect of the conflict. From tethered hot air balloons, linked by telegraph to the ground, showman and balloonist Thaddeus Lowe and his military observers could get magnificent views of enemy positions. One officer even registered his own first by directing ground artillery fire at a hidden Confederate battery. Lowe even launched the first aircraft carrier on the Potomac…a flat-deck barge converted from which his aerial observers were launched.
Confederate maneuvers were constantly under the threat of the ubiquitous balloons showing up to foil their latest impressive maneuver. It was like having Superman flying overhead and reporting back to Union headquarters. Some of the more critical and famous Rebel maneuvers could’ve been completely foiled had balloons been present. Confederates fired their guns at the maddening balloons, but the only real danger was during launch, recovery, or the premature invention of Stinger missiles. As a rule, the balloons above were far out of range.
President Lincoln was impressed when Lowe first approached him with his unique proposal for a Union Air Force, but aging General Winfred Scott arterioisclerotically resisted until, on the third attempt, Lincoln himself led Lowe to Scott’s office and demanded Scott get on it. (Lincoln also had to intercede to get repeating rifles accepted after his War Secretary turned them down, saying soldiers would use up the bullets too fast. Alas, the supplier could not keep up with demand and most Yankees had to continue using rifle muskets.)
Before mid-1863, Lowe’s air force was grounded. Shortly before Gettysburg, biggest battle on the continent, the balloon corps became a fatal casualty of Federal beaurocrats because Lowe could direct armies at enemy targets but was unhandy with paperwork.
If any military advance offers a variety of what-if scenarios, Thaddeus Lowe’s hot air balloons are it. One wonders how the balloon corps would have performed at Gettysburg battlefield and at subsequent battles. Unlike Scott, Meade was an early fan of Lowe’s balloons and saw their potential, but of course wasn’t the right person to prosecute the war. How would the much more aggressive Grant have benefitted from the balloon corps had it been available?
What if Grant became a major proponent of Lowe’s balloons and fully saw the potential, flooding the skies with balloons, not just to spot enemy movements, but Jules Verne-like to fill the skies over the front with observers and artillery spotters. It’s unlikely but food for thought and the kind of fodder producers of historically anachronistic steampunk movies like Wild, Wild West drool.
The book is a quick read at 109 pages which includes numerous photos, graphs, and sidebars – including one on Confederate balloon efforts, as well as notes, index, and bibliography.