Abraham Lincoln’s Air Force – Balloons in the Civil War

Who knew Abraham Lincoln had an air force during the Civil War?  Well, James L. Green knew.  And James L. Green is the authority on Abraham Lincoln’s balloon air force.  Jim’s fascination with Lincoln’s balloon corps goes back 30 years, and perhaps not surprisingly, Jim is the Director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA headquarters in Washington DC.  During this time he has conducted research into Civil War balloons and has spoken at a number of events.  Which is how I first met Jim – he presented Mr. Lincoln’s Air Force at the February 12th, 2012 meeting of the Lincoln Group of the District of Columbia.

The most well known Civil War balloonist was Thaddeus S. Lowe, who took over the title of “Chief Aeronaut” when John Wise quit the job after First Bull Run. According to Jim, Lowe was a skillful manager and lobbyist who was able to drum up government support to “build seven balloons, 12 field gas generators, and a flat-topped balloon barge.”  The latter served as an “aircraft carrier” for launching his balloons into the skies over battlefields and along the Potomac River to keep an eye on Confederate troop movements. Jim’s account of “Civil War Ballooning During the Seven Days Campaign” is a fascinating read.

Under Lowe’s direction Lincoln’s Air Force gave a unique and fundamental advantage to the North.  Unfortunately, it only lasted for a short time.  In a dispute with the government, who was trying to reign in Lowe’s sometimes self-serving management style, Lowe quit. Without a champion the balloons ended up in a warehouse in DC and were never again employed in the War effort. A lapse that may have extended the length of the war.

I had the pleasure of joining Jim for lunch not long after his Lincoln Group presentation.  While I believe I have a large collection of books on Abraham Lincoln (650 titles and nearly 1000 volumes), I was humbled to learn that Jim has 1200 books about the Civil War.  Given my own interest in Lincoln’s fascination with science and technology (the book I’m currently working on) I asked Jim how much Lincoln was involved in the balloon corps.  Not surprisingly, Lincoln definitely favored this use of “modern” technology in the war effort.  How much and in what ways is something that Jim may address in the book he is preparing about Mr. Lincoln’s Air Force.

In the end Jim and I traded recommendations for books of interest from our collections and agreed to keep in touch.  Jim has been invited to speak at an event near Richmond in May and is working with the Civil War Trust to help identify locations of the balloon stations during the Peninsula Campaign.

To view Jim’s February 12, 2012 presentation to the Lincoln Group of DC, check out the YouTube video below.

More on my Abraham Lincoln activities.

David J. Kent is the author of the forthcoming book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, scheduled for release in summer 2017. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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  1. Pingback: Book Review – [Abraham] Lincoln and the Tools of War by Robert V. Bruce | Science Traveler

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