Aerial Reconnaissance at the Battle of Fair Oaks
May 31 – June 1, 1862
Lori S. Tagg
Command Historian, US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence USAICoE
In April 1862, General George B. McClellan, commander of the Union’s Army of the Potomac, moved his troops to Fort Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula. His plan was to march his army on to Richmond, the Confederate capital, and end the Civil War. The first objective was Yorktown. After a month-long siege, the Confederate soldiers withdrew under cover of darkness, leaving the path to Richmond relatively unopposed.
By late May, Union forces were within six miles of the capital but had little knowledge of the tactical situation that lay ahead. On May 23, 1862, Thaddeus Lowe, the Union’s Chief Aeronaut, ascended to a height of 1,000 feet in a hot-air balloon stationed at Gaines Farm on the north side of the Chickahominy River. From there, he informed Gen. McClellan that the enemy was camped along the James River with few troops posted between the Union army and the Confederate capital.
Lowe’s rise to Chief Aeronaut started in June 1861, when he conducted a successful demonstration of his hot-air balloon for President Abraham Lincoln. When Lowe telegraphed a message to the President from a height of 500 feet over Washington, the creation of the Army’s Balloon Corps was assured. Within a month, Lowe and his balloons were on the battlefield. He sent the first air-to- ground battlefield reconnaissance report on July 21, 1861, at the first battle at Bull Run. By late spring 1862, Lowe had three balloons in operation on the Peninsula and each ascended multiple times daily to track enemy movements.
Following Lowe’s May 23 report, the situation on the ground began to change quickly. On May 25, Lowe ascended with Brig. Gen. George Stoneman, who directed Union artillery fire on a small enemy force concealed near New Bridge just one mile away. Four days later, Lowe reported the enemy concentrating opposite Union forces at Mechanicsville approximately three miles from McClellan’s headquarters. At sundown that same day, he reported enemy troops massing in front of a corps of Union troops at Fair Oaks on the south side of the Chickahominy. McClellan moved his reserves up to reinforce the Union forces at Fair Oaks in case of attack. Lowe later claimed, “I think I have reason to presume that cause of this favorable movement of our troops was mainly due to my report….”
On May 30, thunderstorms restricted Lowe to just one ascension. In the unfavorable weather conditions, knowing his movements were mostly unknown to the Union, Confederate Gen. Joe Johnston maneuvered his forces and struck Fair Oaks the following afternoon. That day, high winds prevented Lowe from ascending until early afternoon, by which time the battle had already begun. Lowe remained aloft in his balloon “Intrepid” at Gaines Farm, making reports every 15 minutes during the bloody battle. At 4:30 that evening, Lowe reported that the enemy moved rapidly toward New Bridge, and McClellan ordered the corps stationed there to rush completion of the bridge so they could cross the swollen Chickahominy to support the Union troops. Early the next day, Lowe telegraphed a dispatch stating, “I find the enemy in large force on the New Bridge road, about three miles this side of Richmond. In fact, all of the roads that are visible are filled with infantry and cavalry moving toward Fair Oaks Station.” Several hours later, he declared, “I am astonished at [the enemy’s] numbers compared with ours.”
Lowe claimed this was proof the enemy planned a much larger attack than that of the previous day and his reporting “gave our forces an opportunity of preparing for a vigorous defense.” The Union was able to hold their ground at Fair Oaks and repulsed the Confederates later that day. Lowe wrote, “It was one of the greatest strains upon my nerves that I ever have experienced, to observe for many hours a fierce battle.”
In a 1900 Harper’s Weekly article, Gen. A.W. Greely, Chief of the Signal Corps, reminisced that “[i]t may be safely claimed that the Union Army was saved from destruction at the Battle of Fair Oaks…by the frequent and accurate reports of Professor Lowe.” Historians, however, debate the magnitude of Lowe’s contribution and question the veracity of his memoirs, published nearly 50 years after the Civil War. Nevertheless, the tactical advantages of aerial reconnaissance were obvious even at this early date. Unfortunately, due to logistical issues, the Balloon Corps disbanded a year after the Battle at Fair Oaks. The US Army would not field another aerial reconnaissance effort until the Punitive Expedition of 1916.
The balloon “Intrepid” is inflated for aerial reconnaissance at the Battle of Fair Oaks.
(Library of Congress)