June 15, 1862
Joseph B. Wilson, a 24 year-old farmer from Belfast, enlisted in the 4th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment in April 1861.
By summer of 1862, he had an entirely different perspective on war.
Wilson was assigned to serve in the army’s Balloon Corps. In his letter to his parents he describes the process for making the gas to inflate the balloon. He downplays the danger but does say that they "very often get a few shells from the Rebs when the balloon is up."
The spotters usually raised the balloon to 1000 feet, and, during the Battle of Fair Oaks, "she was up fifteen times."
The Civil War featured many innovations, such as the use of balloons by both the Union and Confederate armies to observe the enemy and to chart terrain.
In June of 1861, Professor Thaddeus Lowe, formerly of Portland, gave President Abraham Lincoln a demonstration of reconnaissance from the air, communicating with the ground by the use of a telegraph. Lincoln authorized the Balloon Corps, and in July named Lowe as the Army’s Chief Aeronaut, a new position that carried a colonel’s salary of $10 per day.
Near Arlington, Virginia, in September 1861, Lowe went up to more than 1000 feet and telegraphed information about Confederate troops at Falls Church, over three miles away. With Lowe’s help, for the first time in a battle, artillery units could aim their guns without being able to see the enemy, and have their shots hit the targets. To protect against balloons, rebels would try to hide their soldiers. They would black out their camps at night and build fake camps and gun emplacements.
Lowe continued to help with battle information during the siege of Yorktown, Virginia. At Fredericksburg, he was able to transmit hourly reports on rebel troop movements. During the Battle of Fair Oaks, balloon observations helped to secure a Union victory. Boats were constructed with flat decks to carry and stow balloons – the first aircraft carriers.
Lowe resigned as Chief Aeronaut in the summer of 1863, and by August, the balloon corps was stopped
Joseph Wilson returned to his regiment. Captured at 2nd Bull Run, he was paroled soon after. In August 1863, he transferred to the Invalid Corps. After the war he returned to his farm in Belfast.
- What other new inventions were used with the balloons?
- How was the presence of the balloon helpful in the war effort?
- What other inventions and ideas helped to make the Civil War the first modern war?