The Civil War Connections Blog

The War Goes Aerial: The “Unofficial” Air Force of the United States

Many argue with the notion that the Civil War was the first “modern” war. There were certainly many technological advances and innovations unlike any previous war: photography, railroads, submarines, ironclads, telegraphs, and advances in weaponry such as the repeating rifle and minié ball.
In early June 1861, Thaddeus S.C. Lowe sent the first telegraphic transmission from air. Aboard a tethered balloon, the Enterprise, 500 feet above Washington, he transmitted the following message to President Lincoln.

Balloon Enterprise,
Washington, June 17, 1861
To the President of the United States
Sir:
This point of observation commands an area nearly fifty miles in diameter. The city, with its girdle of encampments, presents a superb scene. I take great pleasure in sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station, and in acknowledging my indebtedness to your encouragement for the opportunity of demonstrating the availability of the science of aeronautics in the military service of this country.
yours respectfully,
T.S.C. Lowe

On June 23, 1861, the field of aeronautics made its place in military history when Lowe, along with a sketch artist ascended near Bull Run to observe the Confederate Army. His efforts were a slight success and little action was witnessed as it was still very early in the war. At this time, efforts were mainly put into training and gathering troops.

Prof. Thaddeus Lowe's "Balloon Camp" at Gaines Mill, VA, May 1862 Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA