Army Aviation

Taking the First Step. . .

Looking Back 1861 / By Mark Albertson: The opening phases of the War Between the States was hardly a glowing example of maneuver warfare; rather, a feeling out process by two armies of uncertainty; two armies which, at this stage of the conflict, seemed barely able to engage in, let alone understand, the rapidly unfolding commercialization of war, courtesy of the Industrial Revolution, which itself was unfolding with a meteoric alacrity.  Yet, as both the Federal and Confederate armies grew in size, scope and experience, they learned the military art in that School of Hard Knocks known as Modern War.

Left: William Ferrar “Baldy” Smith, first U.S. Army general to order the aerial direction of artillery fire. Right: Ascension of a Union Army balloon, Seven Pines, June 1, 1862.

An example of the growing commercialization of war can be seen with the U.S. Army’s fledgling experiment with airpower, the Balloon Corps.  Aerial observation was the major preoccupation of the aeronauts, improving upon the idea of gaining the “high ground” for the purposes of ascertaining the enemy’s intentions and dispositions.

A number of Union generals, West Point grads educated and weaned on the Napoleonic-Jomini doctrine of war, still saw the horse as the medium of reconnaissance.(1)  Yet there were those ready, willing and able to think out-of-the-box; able to appreciate the military potential inherent in the Third Dimension.  Generals such as George McClellan George Stoneman and Fitz-John Porter, come to mind here.  The last named communicated with Thaddeus Lowe on September 9, 1861:

Headquarters, Porter’s Division
Fort Corcoran, September 9, 1861

Professor Lowe,
Fort Corcoran:

Professor:  General McClellan desires you to transfer your balloon to the Chain Bridge early to-morrow to take observations . . . I am desirous to see you prosper, and I think you are on the road.  I have recommended an increase of two balloons and movable inflating apparatus, and as soon as the utility of the science is made apparent (which will depend on your energy) I have no doubt of success.

Strike now while the iron is hot.
F.J. Porter(2)

Yet it would be General William Ferrar Smith, AKA Baldy Smith, who would draw the honors as the first general in American history to order an aircraft into the air for the purposes of directing artillery fire:

Camp Advance, September 23, 1861
General F.J. Porter:

At about 8:30 to-morrow morning, I wish to fire from here at Falls Church.  Will you please send the balloon up from Fort Corcoran and have note taken of the position reached by the shell and telegraph each observation at once.
W.F. Smith(2)

Headquarters, Porter’s Division
Fort Corcoran, Va., September 24, 1861
Professor Lowe:

SIR:  By direction of General Porter I herewith inclose a telegram from General Smith.  It explains itself.  Two mounted orderlies will be sent to you so that you can, with assistance of your officer, report and send to these headquarters.  During the time of fire it is very important to know how much shot or shell fall short, if at all.

J.F. McQueen,
Lieutenant and Aide-de-Camp(2)

September 24, 1861
General F.J. Porter:

If we fire to the right of Falls Church, let a white flag be raised in the balloon; if to the left, let it be lowered; if over, let it be shown stationary; if under, let it be waved occasionally.
W.F. Smith(2)

Ground observers with field glasses noted the corrections and passed them on to the gunners.(3)  History certainly had been made here, as the growing sophistication of military technology and the resulting specialization of tasks were proving emblematic of just one more aspect of the commercialization of modern society.  Though hardly recognized at the time, except later by those who were most astute, the ensuing progression of history dictated that the seeds of the Class Before One were sowed at Falls Church, Virginia, September 24, 1861.        


  1. Baron Antoine Henri de Jomini’s assessment of aerial observation can be found on pages 251 and 252 in his treatise of war, The Art of War, 1862.  “. . . An attempt of another kind was made in 1794, at the battle of Fleurus, where General Jourdan made use of the services of a balloonist to observe and give notice of the movements of the Austrians.  I am not aware that he found the method a very useful one, as it was not again used; but it was claimed at the time that it assisted in gaining him the victory; of this, however, I have great doubts.

    It is probable that the difficulty of having a balloonist in readiness to make an ascension at the proper moment, and of his making careful observations upon what is going on below, whilst floating at the mercy of the winds above, has led to the abandonment of this method of gaining information.  By giving the balloon no great elevation, sending up with it an officer capable of forming correct opinions as to the enemy’s movements, and perfecting a system of signals to be used in connection with the balloon, considerable advantages might be expected from its use.  Sometimes the smoke of the battle, and the difficulty of distinguishing the columns, that look like lilliputians, so as to know to which party they belong, will make the reports of the balloonists very unreliable.  For example, a balloonist would have been greatly embarrassed in deciding, at the battle of Waterloo, whether it was Grouchy or Blucher who had been coming up by the Saint-Lambert road; but the uncertainty need not exist where the armies are not so much mixed.  I had ocular proof of the advantage to be derived from such observations when I was stationed in the spire of Gautsch, at the battle of Leipsic; and Prince Schwarzenberg’s aid-de-camp, whom I had conducted to the same point, could not deny that it was my solicitation the prince was prevailed upon to emerge from the marsh between the Pleisse and the Elster.  An observer is doubtless more at this ease in a clock-tower than in a frail basket floating in mid-air; but the steeples are not always at hand in the vicinity of battle-fields, and they cannot be transported at pleasure.”

  2. See pages 262 and 263, War of the Rebellion:  A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series III—Volume III, 1899.
  3. See page 213, chapter VI, “Two Months of Progress:  Lowe’s Operations, August-September 1861,” Aeronautics in the Union and Confederate Armies, by F. Stansbury Haydon, 1941.


  • Albertson, Mark, Sky Soldiers:  The Saga of Army Aviation, Volume 1, manuscript, Army Aviation Publications, Inc., Monroe, Ct., December 2016.
  • Culpepper, LCDR, Steven D., USN, Balloons of the Civil War, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS., 1994.
  • De Jomini, Baron Antoine Henri, The Art of War, J.B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia, 1862.
  • Evans, Charles M., War of the Aeronauts:  A History of Ballooning in the Civil War, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA., 2002.
  • Haydon, Stansbury F., Aeronautics in the Union and Confederate Armies, With a Survey of Military Aeronautics Prior to 1861, The Scholar’s Bookshelf, Cranbury, NJ., 2006.  Originally published in 1941.
  • War of the Rebellion:  A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series III—Volume III, Published Under the Direction of the Honorable Elihu Root, Secretary of War, by Brig. Gen. Fred C. Ainsworth and Joseph W. Kirkley, Washington, Government Printing Office, 1899.