Monday, February 6, 2023

The use of spy balloons took off during the Civil War. Were they effective? How have their role and technology evolved over the years?

Union troops inflate Intrepid at Fair Oaks in Virginia (Library of Congress)
Thaddeus Lowe likely never imagined that balloons would one day sail in the stratosphere at 60,000 feet and up. Lowe and other aeronauts during the Civil War reached only 1,000 feet or so, and their balloons were tethered to ships or ground stations.

But, unlike the Chinese suspected spy balloon that was shot down off the coast of South Carolina this weekend by a U.S. fighter jet, no Union or Confederate airships were lost. They were behind front lines and too difficult to hit.

The flight of the unmanned Chinese craft over multiple states was a reminder that spy balloons have been used since the 19th century, seeing particular service in Lowe’s Union Army Balloon Corps.

For two years – until the corps was disbanded due to bureaucratic and logistical issues and indifference – Lowe’s brainchild provided valuable, if limited, service in spotting Rebel positions and putting them on the defensive.

Thaddeus Lowe observes Battle of Fair Oaks from the Intrepid (Library of Congress)
He was a patriot and knew he had the technology (of the time) to help commanders reduce the total time of the war and the total number of casualties,” says Kevin Knapp, a retired Army officer and former professional hot-air balloon pilot.

The Picket reached out to historians and writers who have documented the use of seven Federal and two Confederate balloons during the Civil War. We asked Knapp, historian Michael G. Stroud and Gail Jarrow about their use during the conflict, changes in technology and the role of military balloons today.

Did the use of balloons have a major impact on the conduct of the Civil War?

While the use of balloons never really got off the ground for the Confederacy, they did garner advantages for Federal forces in the first half of the war.

After the Union disaster at the Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) in July 1861, both sides regrouped and expanded recruiting. Concerned that Confederates would cross the Potomac River and take Washington, Federal aeronauts took to the air.

Balloons went up in multiple locations from Edwards Ferry to Buds Ferry making observations and reporting which helped calm the general public and gave the North a greater chance at regrouping,” says Knapp. (Intrepid at left, Library of Congress photo)

The balloons gave observers a bird’s-eye view of the topography that was previously unheard of or unthinkable, according to Stroud. Two of the more well-known Federal craft were the Intrepid and Union. The small Confederate fleet included the Gazelle.

In and around the capital over the coming months, engineer Brig. Gen. John Gross Barnard designed and built 68 forts, a task made much more urgent by the ignominious Union defeat Manassas. Rebel troops weren’t far from the capital – in Falls Church, Va. The Union Army Balloon Corps spied on them from Fort Corcoran.

In Virginia, along the Potomac River, among the most imposing Confederate defenses was Cockpit Point Battery in Prince William County. Perched atop a 70-foot bluff, the fort had an air of mystery from the beginning. It was built in secret, with trees left in front to better hide the construction. Curious Federal troops on the Maryland side of the river eventually used a balloon to try to figure out how many men were at Cockpit Point and other batteries in the area.

At Island No. 10 in the Mississippi River, John Steiner’s Eagle balloon surveilled Rebel strength and defenses. Steiner directed Federal fire from 500 feet up, tethered to a ship. The island was eventually taken.

Balloon Intrepid watches fighting at Fair Oaks in May 1862 (Library of Congress)
Union balloons played a significant part of offensive operations in Virginia in 1862, including Fair Oaks.

Outside Richmond when Union forces were separated in two by a flooded Chickahominy River, multiple ascents and reports by Lowe helped reunite the forces and saved hundreds of lives,” says Knapp, who has portrayed Lowe at events and talks.

“Any time the balloons went aloft, the Confederates had to move their positions. They made false camps; matched in circles to kick up dust to give the impression they had more forces on the ground and they made false campfires at night,” he says. “All (of) this distracted and took time away from actual fighting. Look at all of the attention the China balloon (distracted) us from other more important things.”

In the end, Rebel aeronauts made fewer than 10 ascensions in 1862. Their enemies made about 3,000 flights from 1861 to 1863.

“I never understood why the enemy abandoned the use of military balloons,” wrote Confederate Brig. Gen. and artillerist Edward Porter Alexander. “Even if the observers never saw anything, they would have been worth all they cost for the annoyance and delays they caused us in trying to keep our movement out of sight.”

Kevin Knapp in a reproduction balloon and at site where Thaddeus Lowe landed in South Carolina
How has balloon technology changed since the Civil War?

By the Civil War, balloons had moved from construction of linen and paper filled with hot air to those made of durable varnished silk, powered by hydrogen and helium gasses.

Thaddeus Lowe made his a balloon inside of a balloon knowing they’d be used in a field environment: corn stubble, bush and tree stumps – anything but a freshly mowed lawn,” says Knapp.

Aeronauts could reach altitudes between 500 and 3,000 feet. Lowe tethered his balloons to the ground to provide a stable platform for aerial observation and so information collected could be delivered to the ground commander immediately, says Knapp. Observations were made by line of sight, aided by binoculars or telescope. Wind, trees and obstructions could limit the visibility.

According to Stroud (left), balloons would remain largely unchanged until the 1960s, “when Edward Yost utilized a propane burner to control a balloon’s ascension and descent thus allowing for a degree of balloon control that had not before existed.” Balloons now could carry their own fuel.

Today’s balloons have a thick vinyl envelope, and the helium or hydrogen allows significant lifts that are limited only by the size of the envelope.

Lifting gas expands with increased altitude, according to Knapp, and observation equipment may include radar, infrared, photo imaging and radio frequency sensing -- "all at the same time, in every direction for miles.”

How has their use in military/surveillance matters evolved since the 1860s?

The bulky and cumbersome balloons of the Civil War, with their labor-intensive field hydrogen gas generators, where outfitted with the highest tech of the day for field observation and reporting.

“Militarily, balloons has been used by various world powers since the 1850s predominately as an observation platform, but there were instances where it was used as a bombing platform such as the siege of Venice in 1849,” says Stroud. “The U.S. military considered using balloons as early as the 1830s during the Second Seminole War and even more so during the Mexican-American War of 1846-1846 to break strong Mexican defenses, but none were executed.”

Barrage balloons protected against aircraft at Normandy (Wikipedia)
It would only be during the Civil War when ballooning was given an official military role in both the North and South (though the South lacked the resources to properly outfit and run a ballooning corps), according to the historian.

Military balloons took major steps forward during World War I, and the conflict also saw the use of dirigibles, including the Zeppelin raids of Britain.

“WWII would see the use of barrage balloons or blimps by the UK as part of their defense network to thwart German bombers and V-1 attacks, the Japanese use fire balloons with explosives to cause terror to Americans on the West Coast, the Soviets used them to assist in artillery spotting and the U.S. Navy utilized balloons in their anti-submarine operations,” says Stroud.

While not receiving much publicity, balloons continue to be used as strong surveillance tools and assets by many countries. “The cheap cost structure, when combined with a balloons ability to stay aloft longer and over targets of interests, have made it an ideal platform for intelligence and information gathering,” according to Stroud.

Does this event give you any new thoughts on the practical role (or limits) of balloons to conduct surveillance?

Even with super sophisticated technology, there is something to be said for simplicity, Stroud says.

“Balloons in the military continue to surprise in their value and role diversity from nuclear test detection, to observation and most importantly, intelligence gathering. This alone shows world powers and nations that one does not have to spend millions if not billions on complex military platforms or spy satellites when a fraction of the cost can be invested in disposal yet effective balloons outfitted with surveillance gathering equipment to spy on a geopolitical adversary.”

They still provide a high rate of return

Stroud says military balloons provide a high rate of return for the investment.

“We have yet to develop and implement a relatively cheap surveillance platform that allows one to rise to 60,000 feet (or higher) and therefore out of the range of most fighters, keep eyes on a target for longer than satellites can and provide valuable intelligence on said target like a balloon can,” he says.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Steven D. Culpepper, writing in 1994, said the usefulness of information gleaned by balloons matured during the Civil War. Logistical problems decreased as aeronauts gained experience.

Knapp, who has participated in balloon races, says colleagues have had “to thread the needle” to avoid going into Chinese airspace. And he recalls when two Americans died when their balloon was shot down over Belarus in 1995.

He criticized U.S. leaders for waiting for the Chinese balloon to go over the ocean before it was taken down. Officials had said they were worried about shooting it down over land, were debris could potentially harm people or structures. China has insisted the balloon was used for civilian purposes.

“All of the information collected was immediately received by China as it was collected. We should have shot it down as soon as it entered our airspace, period,” Knapp says.

What would Thaddeus Lowe think of all this?

The aeronaut and scientist, as head of the balloon corps, would be impressed with modern ballooning and electronic technology, according to Knapp.

Lowe would feel extremely vindicated in the longevity of the balloon as a platform and as a military asset,” Stroud says. “He argued vehemently as to its value with President Lincoln and continued to do so up until his dismissal from the Union and the disbanding of the balloon corps.

“He instinctively and fortuitously saw the need for the military to be able to gain greater situational awareness of its surrounding and to gather data, with balloons being the only way to do that. He was only limited by the resources and primitive technology of the time, but his vision became a reality in both our military and those throughout the world.” 

One interesting side note on Lowe (above) involved his own adventure only weeks before the Civil War erupted.

Reading about the path of the Chinese balloon reminded her of Thaddeus Lowe’s flight from Ohio to the Atlantic Ocean (Washington, D.C., area) in April 1861, says Jarrow, author of “Lincoln’s Flying Spies: Thaddeus Lowe and the Civil War Balloon Corps.”

Lowe had future plans to cross the Atlantic in his balloon, and this was his test flight.

“Unfortunately, he came down in South Carolina eight days after Fort Sumter. The locals weren’t too pleased when they realized he was a Yankee,” says Jarrow. “Lowe was arrested, and some wanted to hang him as a spy. No one, including Lowe, knew that within three months, he would be a Union spy. He was eventually released and took a train north immediately.”

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Gettysburg to hold first sensory friendly event Saturday morning, with no loud sounds or flashing lights in Cyclorama, museum

The Cyclorama will be lighted, but sounds will be off Saturday (Gettysburg NMP)
Gettysburg National Military Park on Saturday (Feb. 4) will introduce its first sensory friendly event at its museum and Cyclorama, from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. The program is co-hosted by the Gettysburg Foundation.

The idea is to eliminate loud sounds and strobing lights for those on the autism spectrum or having PTSD.

During those hours, visitors will have free access to the painting and galleries. The Cyclorama will be displayed fully lit, but with no narration, sound effects or flashing lights, so visitors can spend an extended time with the painting. Where possible, loud sounds from audiovisual displays, interactives and films will be reduced or turned off in the Gettysburg Museum of the American Civil War, park officials said. “Hands on History” carts will be available allowing visitors to touch and feel reproduction objects from the parks collection.

Chris Gwinn, chief of interpretation and education at the park, emailed the following responses to questions about the event from the Civil War Picket. The responses have been edited.

Q. How did the idea come about? Is this something park visitors have asked about/for?

A. We have had many visitors comment to us that the Cyclorama show and the museum galleries are loud. Most of the time this isn't an issue that detracts from the overall experience of visiting, and in the case of the Cyclorama presentation the intent is for the soundscape to mimic the thunder of battle. With that said, for anyone with sensory sensitivities, be it PTSD or individuals on the autism spectrum, the experience can be quite overwhelming. Our goal is to make sure all visitors have an opportunity to engage with our museum in a meaningful way and that our programming is as inclusive as it can be. This new event is an attempt to forward that goal. 

We have a great relationship with the Wounded Warrior Project, and in the past have offered them quiet time with the Cyclorama. It was such a positive experience for the attendees that we wanted to extend it to the general public. At the same time, our education team has been committed to offering more inclusive learning opportunities. In addition to this event, they have recently piloted new programming for the visually impaired, as well as those with hearing impairments. 

Q. Are there any specific groups or individuals you are expecting this Saturday? If so, can you provide a brief description?

A. We hope that anyone who enjoys a quieter or more relaxed museum experience will attend. We especially hope that young visitors, especially those on the autism spectrum, along with their friends and family members are able to attend. We also hope to provide a chance for those with PTSD to enjoy the Cyclorama experience and museum without the sound and strobing lights. 

Q. Are there other such venues around the country that have done this? If so, have you been in contact with them or discovered ideas?

A. We did not invent this concept. Other museums and historic sites such as Mount Vernon, the Smithsonian, and others have piloted similar events. I believe this is the first of its kind for a National Park Service Museum or Civil War site. We have been in close contact with these institutions and they have provided some wonderful tips. The big challenge for us is to make this event appropriate for a battlefield park / museum.

Part of the camp life exhibit at the park's museum (Gettysburg NMP)
Q. How will the day work? Will there be a program per se, or will the event be "self-guided"?

A. The program will be self-guided. Visitors can spend as much time as they want in the Cyclorama or museum. We will have staff and volunteers on hand to assist and provide opportunities to have a tactile experience (handling reproduction items, etc.). 

Q. Are you able to provide a small list of what will be in the "hands on history" carts?

A. Reproduction museum items. Uniform and equipment of the Civil War infantrymen, replicas of what visitors can see in the diorama surrounding the cyclorama, musical instruments and more.

Q. What is the specific purpose of the sensory bags patrons will receive? What is included and why? Will they be able to keep them?

A. Yes, visitors will keep the bags. The purpose is simple: 1) to provide basic park information (maps, museum guide, etc.), but also, 2) to provide a tactile experience. The bags are designed to help lessen the potential sensory overload for our younger visitors. It gives them something to fidget with that engages them at the same time. These are very common in museums, libraries, and classrooms. They will contain: A park map and guide, a social narrative guide, a small notebook, Legos, modeling clay, etc.

A "hands on history" cart at the museum (Gettysburg NMP)
Q. In your and the staff's experience, why are loud sounds, narration and flashing lights an impediment to some visitors?

A. It is the cumulative effect for those audiences I mentioned above. It is simply too overwhelming for individuals with these sensitivities, or it has the potential to trigger a previously traumatic experience. 

Q. During these two hours will only the target audience be allowed in the areas?

A. We won't turn anyone away. Anyone who wants to experience the museum and Cyclorama is free to do so. (A quiet space will be available in the Ford Education Center for those visitors who need a break during the event.)

From the park: Complimentary tickets for the sensory friendly hours at the museum and visitor center can be picked up day of at the ticketing desk in the main lobby. All sound, light, and audio-visual programming will return to normal beginning at 11 am. Visitors with sensory friendly tickets are encouraged to explore the museum galleries and remain in the visitor center if they wish. Please note: During sensory friendly hours the park orientation film, “A New Birth of Freedom,” will not be available.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Cemetery manager secures headstone for Michigan soldier

The grave of a man who served in the Civil War has been formally marked at a northern Michigan cemetery. Claude Fields ensured that Ruel Boynton's service wouldn't be forgotten. Fields, manager of the Maple Grove cemetery in Empire Township, has performed research on many of the dead buried there, the Traverse City Record-Eagle reported. “We can’t have a vet in here with no headstone,” Fields said. “That isn’t right.”

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Bill Still, leader of U.S. maritime studies, including those of numerous Civil War shipwrecks, dies at age 90

William N. “Bill” Still Jr., a leading figure in the study of U.S. maritime history, including ironclads and other Civil War warships, has died at age 90.


Still died last week while in hospice care, according to Wilkerson Funeral Home and Crematory of Greenville, N.C.


The retired professor, author and lecturer co-founded the maritime history and underwater archaeology program at Eastern Carolina University, and was known for his study of USS Monitor, commerce raider CSS Alabama, ironclad CSS Georgia and the Confederate submarine Hunley.

“His impact on the history and nautical archaeology program at East Carolina University and on the legion of students that passed through that program will be a perpetual legacy,” program co-founder Gordon P. Watts Jr., wrote the Picket in an email this week. “He will be missed by all who benefited from his attention, none more than me.”


Watts, a former student of Still’s, is himself a renowned nautical archaeologist, and is among only a few people who found the remains of the USS Monitor off Cape Hatteras, N.C., in 1973.


The two men, according to ECU, led conservation work on the famed ironclad’s propeller, which was recovered in 1983. It is exhibited at Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News, Va.


Still, a native of Columbus, Ms., conducted research and wrote numerous works for the U.S. Navy over his career. From 1995-2005, he served as a member of the Secretary of the Navy's subcommittee on naval history. 


“He authored and co-authored dozens of books and publications focused on maritime history from the Civil War through World War II,” according to his obituary. Up until two weeks prior to his death, he was actively researching and writing the last installation of his series for the Secretary of the Navy, which began with Crisis at Sea and Victory Without Peace, focused on the U.S. naval force's withdrawal following WWI.”


John Quarstein, author and director emeritus of the USS Monitor Center, said Dr. Still “was a marvelous person, historian, lecturer, and writer. I believe his volume, ‘Iron Afloat,’ is the best book written about Confederate ironclads. He helped me with my writing, Civil War preservation efforts, and with my work about USS Monitor."


Still, known as “Doc” by graduate students, retired from ECU in 1994, a key figure in its prominence for graduate study in the field. He was considered a dynamic, caring and animated professor.

Jeff Johnston, formerly with NOAA's Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, said Still "was a true hero of ironclads and freely shared that knowledge."

The award-winning historian and author was preceded in death by Mildred Boling Still, his wife of 55 years. He is survived by four children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Colorado unit that fought Rebels and Indians during the Civil War put out a newspaper. The Library of Congress now has a rare complete set

A complete set of Soldier's Letter (Shawn Miller, Library of Congress)
The Library of Congress (LOC) has acquired extremely rare editions of a soldier-produced newspaper describing the actions of the Second Colorado Cavalry against Confederate guerrillas and troops in Kansas and Missouri and, later in the war, Native American fighters.

The bound copy of the full print run of Soldier’s Letter was among only a few complete sets of 50 editions to survive the war, the library said in a late December post about the acquisition. The unofficial camp newspaper was produced 1864-1865 in Kansas City, Mo., and Fort Riley, Kan.

Pvt. Oliver Wallace served as editor, working from contributions by other enlisted men and wives. Soldier’s Letter included poems, regiment history, rosters, letters to the editor and features about camp life, according to the American Antiquarian Society. (Colorado, by the way, was a territory during the Civil War, but this unit fought in the Midwest).

Though there is a long-standing national obsession with the Civil War, regimental newspapers never quite caught on as something to be preserved,” wrote Neely Tucker in the LOC blog post.

“More than 200 such papers in at least 32 states printed at least one edition, according to historian Earle Lutz, but they had mostly vanished by the time he surveyed the nation’s libraries, museums and major private collections in the early 1950s.

(From left) Lt. Col. Theodore Dodd, Col. James H. Ford and Pvt. William Waggoner (WCNB)
The LOC acquired the volume from a dealer in rare manuscripts. The volume was given to regimental commander James Hobart Ford after the Civil War as a memento.

The editions of the newspaper -- which each cost 10 cents -- are printed in pulp stock. Three pages in each edition included news, rumors, jokes and histories of the regiment, which was formed in 1863. The fourth page was left blank for soldiers to write letters or notes to family or friends. The troopers then mailed the pages home.

“Much of the war was over by the time Wallace started his paper, but he and his unnamed correspondents did note Lincoln’s assassination, accounts of skirmishes and the general tenor of the last days of the Confederacy,” wrote Tucker, who manages the LOC blog.

“The rebels have taken to smuggling in bacon past the blockage,” a short item noted in one edition of the anti-slavery camp newspaper. “The evidences multiply that they are on their last legs.”

Final issue sums up unit's history and number of complete editions (Library of Congress)
Another soldier wrote:

“Dear Mother:
Nothing of interest has transpired since I sent you the last two copies of the Soldiers Letter. We are still staying in Mo and will probably remain here some time. My health is good first rate. Plenty of fun Plenty to eat and nothing to do Capt Moses was maried [sic] last Thursday He givs [sic] a party to  night at his wives fathers you bet we will have a good time.”

The Second Colorado Cavalry was deployed  for some time in what was called the Trans-Mississippi Theater during the Civil War. Its actions included patrols, clashes and chasing Confederate Gen. Sterling Price in Missouri in 1864, engaging in multiple battles. Price's foray was a major defeat for the South.

Wilson's Creek National Battlefield in Missouri has a collection of Trans-Mississippi items in its museum, including 19 photos of Second Colorado Cavalry's soldiers (three above) and two documents, says curator Jeff Patrick.

Late in the war, the regiment was sent west to quell Indian raiders on the Santa Fe Trail and other locations. Although the Second Colorado Cavalry was not a participant in the infamous Sand Creek Massacre of Indians in 1864 that killed scores of women, children and the elderly, the Soldier’s Letter editorialized the attack was not vicious enough.

Chris Rein, who wrote a book about the regiment, said in an interview with H-Net that the unit “had a fascinating history, and operated at the nexus of the Civil War and the conquest of the American West.”

He told the Picket in an email this week that accounts such as those by the regiment are "incredibly valuable for assessing the 'unit culture' of Civil War units. Letters, diaries, memoirs, etc. give an individual perspective, but newspapers were intended to appeal to a broader readership and therefore more accurately reflect collective views."

"The paper was published during the most pivotal period of the unit’s service in the 'Burned District' along the Kansas-Missouri border and therefore provides insight into that 'counterinsurgency' campaign, as well as the flaring hostilities on the Plains. It highlights how a regiment of staunch abolitionists could, at the same time, be among the worst Indian-haters in the West," Rein told the Picket.

Chandra Miller, in a 1999 article for the Kansas Historical Society, said the men of the Second Colorado Cavalry, created the Soldier’s Letter to fight isolation, boredom and vagueness of purpose.

“In each issue the Soldier’s Letter covered topics from the history of the regiment to civilian gossip, but the bulk of its pages was dedicated to reflections on the righteousness of American governmental institutions, politics and the eradication of slavery,” Miller wrote.

The newspapers have not been transcribed and thus are not online. The only way to see the full run is by visiting the LOC in Washington, D.C., or, according to Rein, the Denver Public Library, which he says also has a complete set.