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Civil War Aeronauts: Exploring 19th Century Technology Innovation with Photographs, Manuscripts and Newspapers

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This post is by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress.

In the March/April 2021 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article features primary sources illustrating a surprising way balloons were used during the U.S. Civil War – for aerial reconnaissance! The article also presents strategies to help students reflect on how innovations are implemented during key moments in history.

The article suggests introducing the topic by showing students this 1862 photograph of “Professor Lowe’s military balloon near Gaines Mill, Virginia.” Before providing background information, challenge students to make observations and form hypotheses regarding what is happening in the photo.

Image of men preparing a Balloon by Professor Lowe for flight during the U.S. Civil War.
Professor Lowe’s military balloon near Gaines Mill, Virginia. Matthew Brady, 1862

Next, show them the bibliographic record. Are they surprised to learn that this balloon is being inflated before being sent to reconnoiter a battle?

Explain to students that Professor Lowe was a civilian aeronaut, showman, and entrepreneur who used his prior balloon expertise to form the Union Balloon Corps, a civilian-run organization that flew thousands of reconnaissance missions in service of the Union.

As the article suggests, you can then set up stations with additional primary sources, inviting students to explore for insights regarding how this technology was implemented during the war. Some possible examples include:

Telegram from Thaddeus S. C. Lowe to Abraham Lincoln, June 16, 1861
  • A flashy 1859 advertisement – with text arranged in the shape of a balloon – which illustrates Lowe’s previous experience as a showman and entrepreneur, and which perhaps suggests something about how innovations come about and from what motivations.
  • A June 16, 1861 telegram from Lowe to President Lincoln, designed to convince the president to move forward with his idea. Sent during a demonstration flight, from a tethered balloon hovering 500 feet over Washington D.C., Lowe wrote: “I have pleasure in sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station and in acknowledging indebtedness to your encouragement for the opportunity of demonstrating the availability of the science of aeronautics in the military service of the country.”
  • Newspaper articles from the early 1860s, detailing how implementation looked in the field. An article titled “War Ballooning” explained how “a telegraph wire, attached to an instrument on board, conveyed intelligence to [the] men” operating artillery guns, with messages such as: “’too short,’ ‘just a little over,’ ‘fire lower,’ ‘the last shot took them,’ etc.” Meanwhile, “A Balloon for Beaufort” mentioned the method used to transport the balloon via water: it was towed in “the hull of the old steamer Washington Park Curtis, now called a balloon boat.” It also listed some of the ingredients and equipment needed to inflate the balloon in the field: “gas generators, sulfuric acid and iron fillings, for making gas, with other necessary concomitants.”

Encourage students to develop additional questions as well, challenging them to seek out still more primary sources for information. What insights can they learn regarding how new technology ideas emerge, or how they become implemented at key moments in history?

Let us know what your students come up with!

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