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May 31, 1863: Federals launch 'balloon corps'

May. 31, 2013 - 05:27PM   |  
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WASHINGTON — Wary of a new Confederate push into Union territory, the Federal Army’s new “air force” is deploying along the southern front to help keep a watchful eye on rebel camps across the Rappahannock River in Virginia.

It was just two years ago that Thaddeus Lowe convinced top leaders that a Balloon Corps could help provide critical intelligence when he sent the world’s first airborne dispatch, tapping out on a telegraph to the White House, while dangling 500 feet above the Union capital from his balloon, dubbed the Enterprise.

Since then, his aeronauts, as most call them, have served as artillery spotters and airborne scouts on battlefields throughout the war. In some battles, telegraph lines have connected the airborne balloonists directly to the War Department in Washington.

The largest balloons in Lowe’s fleet — Union and Intrepid — hold 32,000 cubic feet of hydrogen gas, pumped from mobile wagons, capable of carrying as many as a five people thousands of feet into the air.

Lowe converted an old coal barge, the George Washington Parke Custis, into what could be called the world’s first “aircraft carrier.” During one recent battle along the Mississippi River, a ship-launched balloonist directed artillery fire against hidden Confederate forces.

But it remains unclear how much longer Lowe, notoriously impatient with Army bureaucracy, will continue serving the Union Army.

“We’ve heard he’s considering resigning,” one Federal officer close to Lowe told Military Times. “He’s frustrated that some commanders don’t seem to appreciate what his aeronauts can do. It’s very much up in the air whether the balloon corps will be able to continue without him.”

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