Have Balloons Ever Been Used in Combat?

For nearly two years during the American Civil War, the Union Army utilized a fleet of gas-filled balloons to track the movements of the Confederate Army. Organized by Thaddeus S.C. Lowe in 1861, the Union Army Balloon Corps consisted of seven floating reconnaissance vessels, mostly launched from ground bases in order to keep an aerial eye on Confederate troop movements. Lowe and fellow aeronaut John LaMountain expanded the unit’s reach by retrofitting a coal barge into a floating launch platform for the balloons -- making it one of the world's first aircraft carriers.

Putting eyes in the skies:

  • Lowe was preparing to attempt a transatlantic crossing by balloon when the Civil War broke out. He offered his aviation expertise to President Abraham Lincoln in June 1861.
  • Launching from an armory across the street from the White House, Lowe demonstrated his balloon acumen, flying over the surrounding countryside and telegraphing information back to the president.
  • Lowe was chosen over other candidates to become the chief aeronaut of the newly formed Union Army Balloon Corps. The unit was disbanded in the summer of 1863 when Lowe resigned.
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