The Birth of American Air Intelligence

I started my Air Force career as an imagery intelligence analyst (also known as a “1N1X1” or a “squint”). It was my job to examine images taken by any of a plethora of “overhead” military platforms (U2 spy planes, as one example) and determine what was going on in them. American intelligence collection capability is truly amazing, and the origins of airborne intelligence collection were simultaneously humble and revolutionary.

The value of airborne intelligence gathering was pretty well evident in the earliest days of aviation. Only months following the first human’s ascension in a hot air balloon into the sky near Versailles   in 1783, the French incorporated a balloon unit into its military.  However, despite the notable contributions made during successive European battles, by 1802 the aérostiers were retired.[i] So by the time the US Civil War erupted in 1861, manned balloons had remained almost entirely outside of military operations for the better part of six decades.

At the outset of the conflict, experienced balloonists (called “aeronauts”)  like Thaddeus Lowe, John La Mountain, and John Wise petitioned the US government for the opportunity to serve the country with the unique capabilities afforded by their aerial platforms. And while La Mountain was able to establish balloon operations in beleaguered Fort Monroe, Virginia, Lowe distinguished himself from his professional competitors by demonstrating the unique capabilities offered by aerial intelligence directly to President Lincoln. On 16 June, 1861, Lowe ascended in a balloon which was tethered near the White House. He then, using a telegraph machine in the basket, telegraphed what he saw directly to Lincoln’s office.

“This point of observation commands an area near fifty miles in diameter. The city with its girdle of encampments presents a superb scene,” reported Lowe in what could be described, using today’s military concepts, as an exercise intelligence report.[ii] Lincoln was impressed, and appointed Lowe head of the Union’s new Balloon Corps.

June 1861 telegraph to Lincoln from Lowe_smaller
Telegraph message from Thaddeus Lowe to Abraham Lincoln, 16 June 1861.

From the earliest days of the war through early 1863, the Balloon Corps demonstrated the unique capability afforded by aerial intelligence.  An early example of this is actually on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, in Dayton, Ohio. Set up in the front of the Early Years Gallery is a hand-drawn map. In April 1861, Union forces at Fort Monroe in Virginia were isolated thanks to Virginia’s secession. John La Mountain managed to get his equipment and a single balloon into the old fort, which was bracing for a possible assault similar to Fort Sumter. Major General Benjamin Butler, in command at Monroe at the time, needed intelligence, and La Mountain was the man to get it for him. On 10 August, La Mountain ascended in his balloon to 3500 feet. From that vantage, he was able to identify troop camps and naval activity. He also provided General Butler with this map, possibly the first example of aerial intelligence mapping.[iii]

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Map drawn by John La Mountain, while observing from his balloon, 10 August 1861. (Exhibit at National Museum of the United States Air Force. Photo of exhibit mine).

The use of these military balloons not only advanced military intelligence collection capabilities, but the Union army was forced to devise new technologies to deploy the assets in the field. Thaddeus Lowe created a mobile hydrogen gas generator, as well as directed the conversion of a Navy vessel into a specialized balloon deployment asset. This vessel, the USS George Washington Parke Custis – a coal barge- was fitted with the special hydrogen generator, and the deck was cleared to allow for balloon inflation. This gave the Union the ability to tow the balloon along the Potomac and adjacent waterways, expanding the range and flexibility of aerial intelligence collection.[iv]

Balloon Ship
USS George Washington Parke Custis, a converted coal barge, was used by Thaddeus Lowe to increase the Balloon Corps’ effectiveness. It also represented military innovation and expanded intelligence capabilities.

Arguably then, the first military aviation platforms commissioned by the US Army were intelligence collection platforms. Yes, they were used for artillery spotting, but one of the primary drivers for President Lincoln to approve the creation of a Balloon Corps was the promise of real-time intelligence collection and transmission to commanders on the ground. It was not uncommon for an officer (at times, the commander) to ascend with Lowe to get a sense of the land and enemy disposition. The Confederates were vexed by the balloons, and tried to destroy them whenever they were observed rising.

Photographs would not be used with balloons, although some experiments of aerial photography (using kites and balloons) had been conducted by civilians around this time. However, the methodical use of professional intelligence gathering by specially trained aeronauts during the US Civil War is clear milestone (if not the first milestone) in the evolution of American aerial intelligence capabilities. A whole new dimension of warfare was emerging.

 

[i] I’m not going to pretend that my research into French ballooning goes beyond the reading of a few secondary sources at this point. Charles M. Evans, in War of the Aeronauts, gives a brief overview of the earliest days of ballooning as he lays the ground work for his in-depth telling the use of balloons in the US Civil War. But I found a fascinating and concise article on the subject in All the Year Round, a British periodical and literary journal edited by none other than Charles Dickens. All the Year Round, Volume 1; Volume 21 (27 Feb, 1869) pp297-299.

[ii] Lincoln, Abraham. Abraham Lincoln papers: Series 1. General Correspondence. 1833 to 1916: Thaddeus S. C. Lowe to Abraham Lincoln, Sunday,Telegram from balloon. 1861. Manuscript/Mixed Material. https://www.loc.gov/item/mal1031300/.

[iii] Evans, Charles M, War of the Aeronauts, a History of Ballooning (Stackpole Books, Mechanichsville, PA, 2002), 96-98.

[iv] U.S. AIRCRAFT CARRIERS: THE FORERUNNERS, NavSource Online Naval History (https://www.navsource.org/archives/02/forerunners/cv-forerunners.htm), Last update: 17 September 2006, accessed 23 Sep 2018.

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Remembering Fort Duffield

I’ve spent part of this month visiting Civil War sites that are off the beaten path, or at least not as well known as the major battlefields. One of these sites, Fort Duffield, is perched on a hill in West Point, Kentucky, about 30 miles southwest of Louisville. Hastily built over the late-fall and early-winter of 1861-62 at the mouth of the Salt River where it springs out from the Ohio, the purpose of the fort was to defend Louisville and to protect Union supply lines vital to securing the Commonwealth as well as operations in Tennessee.

Fort Duffield Overview1

As the Union started to actively unravel in April 1861, the fate of the slave owning Border States was of particular concern to Washington. Kentucky harbored both passionate Confederate and Union sentiments, and so defense of key cities such as Louisville was as important as it was problematic. A number of fortifications were constructed in and around the city, eventually including a site on Pearman Hill, which provided good over-watch of the Ohio and Salt Rivers.[1] In the relative quiet following the first battle at Bull Run, however, there appeared to be disagreement on the severity of the Confederate threat. By 26 Sept, 1861, when Brigadier General O.M. Mitchell arrived in Louisville, he wrote that the city was in a state of excitement as rumor of attack by Confederate General Buckner had just reached them. Days later, the Daily Democrat ran an article indicating that rebel forces were rumored to the south of West Point, but proclaimed confidence in the growing Union presence in the vicinity of where Fort Duffield would soon be built.[2] And while General Sherman also believed Buckner could target some area near the mouth of Salt River, General Buell soon dismissed the need for it, informing General McClellan that he was not at all worried about threats to Louisville, although the “little work at the mouth of the Salt River…does no harm.”[3]

29Sep1861 Courier
The Daily Democrat, 29 Sept 1861.

Later, in 1862, Buell may have rued those comments as the Confederate army under Braxton Bragg maneuvered through Kentucky and appeared to threaten Louisville.  Although Bragg instead moved to Bardstown, Buell was compelled to rush to Louisville’s defense. Nevertheless, by the end of that year, Fort Duffield would be effectively abandoned.

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Earthen Wall, part of the remains of Fort Duffield.

No major battles were fought at Fort Duffield, although it may have helped shape how the war in the west played out, as its placement and soldiers (about a regiment in strength) certainly would have been taken into consideration by any potential rebel action. But the story of Fort Duffield is important, as it reveals the human cost of the rapid militarization that the states underwent in the first days of the conflict. To the west of the fort is an area that is believed to have been a parade ground used by the forces garrisoned there. Today, this patch of ground is a memorial to the 30+ soldiers from the 9th Michigan Infantry Regiment who died erecting Duffield. (Note that the official web site and early publications state that over 60 men perished. This number is evidently overstated, and updates are being worked into the official documentation). Disease and a harsh winter took a devastating toll. A look at the headstones there show the men dying between late October 1861 and February 1862, when the fort was completed.

I had the privilege of speaking with the man who has been tending to the site for 20 years. I’m omitting his name, since I forgot to ask permission to share it. But I was struck with the love he clearly had for maintaining this small corner of American history. I told him how impressive his work was, how pleasant the memorial for those who died building the fort. He simply said the most important thing is that “they aren’t forgotten.”

Take a look at the park’s website: Fort Duffield.

[1] James T.R. Jones,  A Brief History of Civil War Fort Duffield, West Point, Kentucky, http://fortduffield.com/A%20Brief%20History%20of%20Fort%20Duffield%20by%20James%20T.%20R.%20Jones.pdf, accessed 7/24/2016.

[2] United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1 Volume IV (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880 -1891), 275.

[3] United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1 Volume IV (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880 -1891), 336.

 

The Frenzied First Days of War: the Path to the Battle of Big Bethel

Tensions ran high in Virginia in the last week of May, 1861. After the heady rush of victory that electrified the South following

Fort Monroe, located at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War.
Fort Monroe, located at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War.

the surrender of Fort Sumter and the seizing of Harper’s Ferry, anticipation of the next clash with the North grew. It was no secret that new recruits were pouring into Washington, and on the 24th, Union forces swept unopposed into Alexandria. Was this how Union General Irvin McDowell would strike the Old Dominion? Or would General Patterson try to leap from Maryland in an attempt to crush General Johnston on the way to Richmond? Or would the Northerners, as then-Colonel John Magruder anxiously wondered, invade via the coast, using the still Northern-held Fort Monroe on the tip of Hampton, VA to stage operations?

On the same day the US Army raised the Federal flag over Alexandria, Magruder received an alarming message from a man “said to be reliable” who had just arrived at West Point, Virginia. Hampton, he said, had been overrun by some 2500 Union troops. Magruder’s next steps demonstrated a levelheadedness in regards to military intelligence that many lacked, both Northern and Southern, in these early days of war. First, he asked that two small craft be dispatched to Jamestown Island, which juts into the James River some 30 miles northwest of Newport News and Hampton, in order to establish communication between the mainland and the area supposedly under Union control. He then also requested that cavalry forces be sent to him at once. “No reliable information can be attained without them,” Magruder wrote.

John B. Magruder. A graduate of West Point, "Prince John" demonstrated a certain affinity for operational intelligence operations.
John B. Magruder. A graduate of West Point, “Prince John” demonstrated a certain affinity for operational intelligence operations.

Within hours of sending this dispatch, additional intelligence revealed that the “reliable” man was actually quite mistaken. In a dispatch that sounded much less frenzied than the first, Magruder relayed that less than half the number of Union troops (1000) had landed at Hampton, and then only briefly. In addition, a small scouting party had been dispatched to Newport News. Only one company of enemy cavalry was noted. Magruder’s quick correction revealed two things: first, his awareness of the need to rapidly convey intelligence up to leadership in Richmond, and second, that he wasn’t letting his ego interfere with the execution of this responsibility. This is in contrast to Lieutenant Colonel A.S. Taylor in Alexandria, who earlier that month took nearly 4 days to communicate the intelligence that prompted his rapid retreat from Alexandria.

The Union withdrawal would be short-lived, however. Days later on the 27th of May, Major General Benjamin Butler lead US troops back into Newport News. Two weeks later, North and South clashed in what would be dubbed the Battle at Big Bethel. Here too, as we will see, Magruder and his subordinate commanders would demonstrate quickly maturing operational and tactical intelligence capabilities that helped blunt Union advantages in troop strength and materiel.

“Shall I arrest Colonel Taylor?” Confusion in Alexandria, May 1861

In the first days of May, 1861, with the echoes of Fort Sumter scarcely faded, Confederate forces stationed at Alexandria, Virgina, directly across the river from the Union capital, waited nervously for the next move. Flush with zealous patriotism, the new nation’s leadership in Richmond was adamant that not an inch of sacred Southern soil be yielded without a heavy price in blood. It was easier said than done.

Alexandria from Pioneer Mill, looking north-west (1865)
Alexandria from Pioneer Mill, looking north-west (1865)

Leading the Confederate soldiers in Alexandria was Lieutenant Colonel A.S. Taylor. With orders to stand ground “unless pressed by overwhelming and irresistible numbers”, he conducted a sober accounting of his fighting strength as compared to the swelling army across the Potomac. Two companies of “raw Irish recruits” armed with “altered flint-lock muskets of 1818, and without cartridges or caps…”; a company with 86 musket-armed troops; an additional 52 men in various states of armament (including 15 with no weapons at all); two companies of about 160 men armed with minie rifles, but only from five to nine cartridges each; and two companies of cavalry, one with 40 troops armed with carbines but “limited” ammunition, and one with no weapons except Colt revolvers. So with less than 400 soldiers, Taylor was tasked with holding or delaying the inevitable Federal invasion.

Probably about the same time as he received his orders, which had been delivered on 5 May, Taylor received intelligence from one Mister J.D. Hutton, who until recently worked as a cartographer for the War Department. From Mr. Hutton, Taylor was dismayed (but certainly not surprised) to learn that the Yankees intended to occupy Alexandria within days, either the 7th or the 8th of May (in fact, it would be a few more weeks before Union troops organized enough to even venture across the river). With forces arriving almost daily around Washington, and two steamers only a few miles downriver seemingly ready to move troops, the colonel decided the threshold for “overwhelming and irresistible numbers” had been met. He quickly gathered up his small command, and retreated to Springfield, 10 miles west of Alexandria.

The commanding general of the Potomac Department, General Philip St. George Cocke, was furious that Taylor had not

Philip St. George Cocke (1809–1861). After perceived slights from General P.G.T. Beauregard and General Lee following the Battle at Bull Run, General Cocke took his own life in December, 1861.
Philip St. George Cocke (1809–1861). After perceived slights from General P.G.T. Beauregard and General Lee following the Battle at Bull Run, General Cocke took his own life in December, 1861.

only retreated, but was in such a hurry that he didn’t bother to communicate his intentions. It’s this break down in command and control, as well as in the convoluted handling of intelligence, that is highlighted here. Taylor received credible intelligence from a trustworthy source, but his first instinct was not to disseminate this up the chain of command in order to coordinate a response or seek reinforcements. Cocke’s order to remain in place was clear that this should be done: “keep up your communications with the various parts in your rear, so as to call every resource to your aid and support in making a gallant and fighting retreat, should you be forced to it, and can stand at all without danger of uselessly sacrificing your command.” It wasn’t until 7 May that Cocke located Taylor, and up to this point he was still completely ignorant of why Alexandria had been abandoned. Late on the 6th, in a dispatch to Richmond, Cocke wrote that he had not “been able, from any other source, except that furnished me by the arrival of Mr. Skinner, direct from Alexandria…to learn the cause of that movement; and, so far as I am informed up to this moment, there was no proper or justifiable cause whatsoever for any such movement. After waiting for further intelligence and receiving none, and duly considering and weighing all the circumstances and bearing of that movement with the information before me, I have ordered the return of the troops, as communicated by telegram, a duplicate of which has just been transmitted to the general-in-chief.” Cocke even requested permission to arrest Taylor, but was talked out of it by Robert E. Lee, who instead asked for a reason the forces evacuated.

By the 9th, Taylor had explained his reasons, and this seemed to placate Cocke. On 13 May he forwarded Taylor’s written statement to Richmond. The request to arrest him was absent from this communication. But the lesson here is that, although strategic intelligence around the overall disposition and intent of the US military was becoming clear, operational intelligence operations were off to a rough start, at least in the northeast corner of Virginia. Unfortunately for the Union, more competent leadership would soon arrive, and intelligence preparations were to be put in place over the next three months that proved critical to the Confederate victory at Bull Run.