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]

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.

[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 (, Last update: 17 September 2006, accessed 23 Sep 2018.