Aerial Reconnaissance, Telegraphy, and the Battle of Fair Oaks

     Among the technological innovations brought about by the Civil War was the widespread use of the telegraph for battlefield communications. One of the more intriguing early uses of the telegraph on the battlefield occurred on May 31, 1862 during the Battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia when Professor Thaddeus Lowe and Parker Spring, superintendent of Telegraph Construction for the U.S. Army, went aloft in one of Lowe’s balloons, the Intrepid. As Spring describes below, while Lowe observed the Confederate army’s movements with a pair of field glasses, Spring tapped away on his telegraph key in the balloon, providing real time intelligence to General George B. McClellan’s headquarters of the battle in progress.

In much the same way that drones today provide real time images and information regarding enemy movements and dispositions, Lowe and Spring’s innovative marriage of two emerging technologies helped cut a hole through the fog of war, potentially allowing battlefield commanders to possess accurate information about the enemy. The flight could also be considered the first tactical reconnaissance mission flown by the U.S. Army that provided real time intelligence on enemy movements to the army high command.

Spring’s account of Fair Oaks originally was published in the Lancaster Express in Pennsylvania; this shorter version saw publication in the June 27, 1862 issue of the Weekly Pioneer & Gazette of St. Paul, Minnesota.


This wonderful image from the Liljenquist Collection shows Professor Lowe and his balloon after its flight on June 1, 1862 at Fair Oaks. Just to the left of the star-studded basket kneels our correspondent Parker Spring working on his telegraph key. 

    For some time past, I have been ordered by Colonel Thomas T. Eckert, our superintendent of military telegraphers, to try a telegraphic experiment from a balloon. Saturday morning, when we heard that a great battle must be fought, Professor Lowe notified me that I should extend the wire to the balloon and we would try it. In one hour, we brought the wire a mile and a half and I was ready to ascend with the Professor. The battle had commenced. When it had reached its zenith, Professor Lowe and myself with the telegraph had reached an altitude of 2,000 feet. With the aid of good glasses, we were enabled to view the whole affair between these two powerful and contending armies.

          As the fight progressed, hasty observations were made by the Professor and given to me verbally, all of which I instantly forwarded to General McClellan and division commanders through the agency of the obedient field instrument which stood by our side in the bottom of the car. Occasionally a masked Rebel battery would open upon our brave fellows. In such cases the occupants of the balloon would inform our artillerists of its position and the next shot or two would in every case, silence the masked and annoying customer.

          For hours and until quite dark, we remained in the air, the telegraph keeping up constant communication with some point. From the balloon to Fortress Monroe, a distance of over 100 miles, this wire worked beautifully. A number of messages were sent and received between the two points, and had it not been for the tremendous rush of business on the wire, I would have telegraphed you directly from the balloon while the battle was raging.

          Sunday morning at daybreak we again ascended. Early in the morning, the battle was renewed and with more fierceness than the day before. Incessant firing of artillery and musketry was kept up until noon when I had the extreme pleasure to announce by telegraph from the balloon that we could see the enemy rapidly towards Richmond. At this time, we could see firing on the James River to the left of Richmond, distant from the balloon some 15 miles. This fire was of short duration.

A close up of the above image shows a bearded Parker Spring tapping on his telegraph key; the wire stretched from the key to the spool at right which led back to General McClellan's headquarters, and all the way back to Fortress Monroe. 

          Here is how Richmond looked from the balloon. The streets of Richmond in the morning presented a deserted appearance, but very few people were to be seen in the streets. During the afternoon and evening of Sunday, nothing of interest transpired beyond the removal of the Rebel dead and wounded, all of which we could distinctly see from the balloon. Every available machine that had wheels was brought into requisition for this purpose. From the scene of battle into the city of Richmond, the road was literally lined with ambulances, wagons, and carts conveying the dead and wounded.

          About twilight, we saw campfires innumerable around the city; smoke issued from all their hospitals and barracks which showed us to a certainty that the main body of their army had fallen back to Richmond. Monday morning, we made several ascensions and found a small force near the last scene of action, and thousands of troops marching out from the city, so you may look momentarily for a report of another severe battle.



“Balloon Telegraphing in Battle,” Weekly Pioneer & Gazette (Minnesota), June 27, 1862, pg. 6

Professor Lowe's Intrepid being inflated from the hydrogen gas-generating wagons on the left during the Battle of Fair Oaks. It normally took upwards of three hours to fully inflate Lowe's largest balloon. Ascending to a height of 2,000 feet, Lowe and Spring had an unparalleled view of the battlefield. 


  1. Absolutely fascinating. Imagine the wonder of the men in the balloon for the first time with a view like birds, 2,000 feet above the battle, seeing the long ribbons of infantry moving. Oh, if a photographer had been able to go up with them to record such a perspective in 1862.


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