Yankee Gas Bags

January 2008



Innovations abounded during the War of the Rebellion, including ironclad battleships, the military telegraph, high-speed newspaper printing, repeating rifles, the Secret Service, and army aerial support. President Lincoln’s inquisitive nature encouraged inventors to bring their ideas and prototypes. Lincoln was known to personally test newly designed rifles on the White House lawn.


Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe was a mere 29 years old in June 1861 when he met with Abraham Lincoln to offer his assistance to the Union army by using aerial reconnaissance to observe the movement of rebel troops. Lincoln quickly pointed out, "You are asking me to equip our Army with balloons to observe the movements of the enemy. I should think, Mr. Lowe, that balloons would make splendid targets." Lowe assured the president that the balloons and their mooring ropes would be positioned beyond out of range of rebel firepower. Satisfied, Lincoln appointed Lowe Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps.


During the ensuing months, seven balloons were used as Union eyes in the sky with results that pleased Lowe beyond measure. Telegrams were transmitted from the balloons to a ground crew to inform army action. The balloon aeronauts reported positioning information to help Union shells hit their targets, thwarted Rebel cavalry surprise attacks, and prevented Union troops from accidentally firing upon their own troops.


The rebels had no countermeasures to stave off the “Yankee gas bags” and offered a $1000 reward and a promotion to anyone who destroyed a balloon. The reward was never paid out.


Military historians today observe that although Lowe’s balloons aided the Union army, aerial reconnaissance was not fully embraced by the many conservative generals of the Union army. General McClellan received reports of Lee’s movements during the Peninsula Campaign in 1862 and chose to withdraw his vastly superior forces when he was within striking distance of Richmond. Instead of using Lowe’s information to his advantage by attacking, conservative McClellan inadvertently prolonged the war three more long years.


Lowe had also been instrumental in the introduction of the first aircraft carriers. In 1861, Lowe directed the construction of the George Washington Parke Custis, rebuilt from a coal barge and equipped with a flight deck. The vessel towed Lowe in a balloon at an altitude of 1,000 feet while Lowe made observations. Lowe resigned in 1863 after disputes arose regarding his operations and his pay. Lowe returned to civilian life and quickly became a millionaire after inventing water gas process and selling his patented ice-making machines.