By Ken Zurski
In 1862, at the age of twenty-two and nearly a decade before he become recognizably famous, the newly appointed Captain George Armstrong Custer went up in a hydrogen-filled balloon over the Virginia Peninsula, not far from Richmond, where the rebel capitol would soon be captured by Union forces. A short and uneventful ride in a balloon is not the stuff of legends and this brief episode in Custer’s life is understandably unremembered. We know it happened only because Custer chose to write about it. And only because he chose to write about it, do we know he didn’t care for the experience as a whole.
So much for balloons in the Federal Army, right?
Not so. Abraham Lincoln certainly recognized the need. By the time Custer went up, tethered balloons were being used – albeit sparingly – for surveillance in the Civil War. A man named Thaddeus Lowe is the reason why. In April of 1861, Lowe flew one of his balloons over Unionville in the newly seceded state of South Carolina. He landed and was subsequently captured as a Union spy. Lowe claimed he was “a man of science” and let go. Despite this rather dubious start, Lincoln invited him to Washington to test the use of a telegraph wire tied to the balloon’s tether. Lowe’s first dispatch was sent directly to a service room in the White House. “This point of observation commands an area nearly fifty feet in diameter,” Lowe messaged. Lincoln immediately directed Lowe to form a Balloon Corps, more formally known as the Military Aeronautics Corps.
Lowe was given funds to make more balloons and soon enough there were eight in all with distinctly patriotic names: Union, Intrepid, Constitution, United States, Washington, and the Eagle. The first balloon used for official military purposes, the Union, ascended on September 1861 near Arlington, Virginia. From a vantage point nearly three miles away, Confederate troops were spotted in Falls Church. Instantly, telegraph intelligence improved.
But when the battles slowed, Lowe had little to do and turned to promoting his balloon business instead. He got into the habit of allowing journalists to take rides. Most of them were eager to do so because it made good copy. However, many of the enlisted men and officers, were not so easily influenced. Perhaps this was out of caution- or fear. After all one unfortunate officer named Fitzjohn Porter, a lieutenant-general, almost never made it back alive.
Porter was in a balloon that broke from its tether and flew into rebel territory, near Yorktown. The balloon drifted directly over enemy outworks and sharp shooters aim, but whether Porter was actually fired upon is unknown. Luckily he caught an “air-box,” drifted back into camp and landed onto some Union tents, not far from where he launched. Porter was fine, but his nerves were shot.
This mishap must have been in Custer’s mind when he agreed to go up in one of Lowe’s balloons. “My desire, if frankly expressed, would not have been to go up at all,” he wrote, never disclosing why he changed his mind. “If I was to go,” he continued, “company would certainly be desirable.”
Custer’s balloon mate was one of Lowe’s assistants, James Allen. “[Mr. Allen] began jumping up and down testing it’s strength,” Custer related. “My fears were redoubled. I expected to see the bottom of the basket give way, and one or both of us dashed to the earth.”
Custer wasn’t taking any chances. He sat crouched in the basket for most of the trip. “I was urged to stand up,” he wrote, and at some point did. What he witnessed impressed him. “To the right could be seen the York River, following which the eye could rest on Chesapeake Bay. On the left, and about at the same distance, flowed the James River.”
With his field glasses, Custer spotted the enemy camp. “Men in considerable numbers were standing around entrenchments…intently observing [our] balloon, curious, no doubt, to know the character or value of the information it occupants could derive from [our] elevated post of observation.” Still his attitude toward balloons was skeptical at best. “To me it seemed fragile indeed.”
Custer’s balloon ride was in April of 1862. By the end of May, Commanding General George B. McClellan had heard enough. The balloons were too important a resource to be used for entertainment. He banned all joy rides and required Union officers to have written permission from him personally before going up.
The balloons would be used for surveillance purposes only.
Although he was a bit reckless and already had a reputation for doing things his own way, thanks to one – and only one – balloon ride, Custer gladly accepted the general’s orders.
(Sources: Falling Upwards: How We Took To The Air by Richard Holmes; various internet sites)