THE BIRTH OF THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER (from USNI Proceedings Vol 93/No 4/Whole No 770)
by W. T. Adams
“Look! What’s that?” The gray-clad soldier pointed down the Potomac River toward a group of ships just rounding a bend. “Look just beyond the last one.”
“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” his companion answered. “We’d better tell the captain right away!”
On that August day in 1862, as the Confederate lookouts ran back to report, they knew they had sighted something unusual, but they little realized that the ships rounding the bend were the Civil War’s most incredible armada-the first aircraft carrier task force!
Escorted by the powerful screw sloop Wachusett, the double-ended gunboats Tioga and Port Royal, and the armed steamer Delaware, the heart of the force was an unusual craft being towed by a small steamer. It was this vessel that had startled the lookouts, for moored to its unusually large and flat deck was a huge balloon with the name Intrepid standing out clearly on its sides. The vessel was, in fact, America’s first aircraft carrier, the George Washington Parke Custis.
The Custis, however, was not the first waterborne platform used for balloon operations during the Civil War. As early as August 1861, the little armed steamer Fanny had served as a temporary balloon base in Chesapeake Bay and Hampton Roads. As reported in the Scientific American:
The veteran and daring balloonist J. LaMountain has been at Fortress Monroe making ascensions and examinations of the secessionists’ positions in that vicinity. On the 3rd instant he tried a new scheme in aerial scouting, by taking his balloon on board of the steamboat Fanny, and went out in the middle of the river ascended 2,000 feet, with the balloon secured by a rope to a windlass. The Fanny then proceeded slowly down toward Sewell’s Point, drawing the balloon while in the air, halting, when opposite, for a time, and then proceeding on toward Craney Island and Pig Point. After a long reconnaissance of the points thus brought under his supervision, Mr. LaMountain came down to the boat, attached his balloon to its stern, and came back to the Fortress. He reports that behind the trees on Sewell’s Point he saw the labors on the fortifications actively progressing, and that a large number of guns, on cutting away the trees, will be made to bear on the Rip Raps, on the Fortress and on the shipping. The Rebels ran when they saw him in the air, leaving their works and peeping at him from their shelter and behind trees.
The operation had considerable value from a military standpoint, for the area LaMountain had viewed was screened by a natural growth of trees along the water. Without his aerial observation, the fortifications would never have been detected until after they had been completed and the trees cut away to clear the field of fire.
After that it would appear that LaMountain himself, if no one else, would have been a strong supporter of further waterborne aerial operations. His next one, however, did not occur until 10 August. Records conflict in reporting the use of two different vessels for this ascension-the Fanny and the tug Adriatic. In any event, LaMountain reported using the number of fires and tent lights to aid him in estimating the number of Rebel troops in their encampment. His report was apparently considered valuable, for General Benjamin F. Butler (who accompanied LaMountain aboard ship) promptly forwarded it on to General Winfield Scott. Strangely, however, despite the apparent success of these ascensions, the record shows nothing of waterborne aerial operations by LaMountain.
In the meantime, the Potomac River area had become the scene of extensive military activity. Both Union and Confederate troops were concentrated in the vicinity, and Union ships on the river often ran a gauntlet of rebel fire. The extent of the battlefront made reconnaissance a serious problem, and balloons were soon in use throughout the area. A number of balloon observation stations were established, but the rapidly changing battlefront made rapid movement of balloons essential throughout the entire area.
Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, the army’s “Chief Aeronaut,” as he styled himself, had made extensive improvements in operation of the balloon corps. When first used during the Civil War, balloons were inflated from city gas mains and then towed slowly and tortuously (while inflated) to the scene of action. Movement was slow and difficult at best, and even a minor storm often made the operation disastrous. Lowe had increased balloon mobility by developing portable gas generating equipment that could be carried in the field. Even so, however, the movement of a wagon train with balloon, gas generating equipment, and supplies was often too slow to meet battlefield requirements.
To improve balloon mobility, Lowe then proposed the use of a boat especially equipped to launch balloons and carry supplies for their operation, and the George Washington Parke Custis was selected. She had been purchased by the Navy Department in August of 1861 as a coal barge for the Washington Navy Yard and was 122 feet long with a 14 foot beam and a 5 1/2-foot depth of hold. Described by one correspondent as a “nondescript sort of craft,” the Custis was modified for balloon work by covering the hull with a wide, flat, overhanging deck all around and adding a small house on the stern. Gas generators, repair parts, and other necessary facilities for balloon operation were provided and she was manned by a crew of army balloon handlers under Lowe’s direction. The operation of the balloon boat, as it was called, was entirely an army affair, except that the lack of motive power and armament required cooperation of the Navy for towing and escort services.
By early November 1861, the strange craft was ready for service, and the first balloon expedition by carrier left the Washington Navy Yard on 10 November. The following day, the first operational ascensions from the balloon boat were made off Mattawoman Creek where Lowe, accompanied by General Daniel E. Sickles, observed Confederates at work constructing batteries at Freestone Point. The results apparently convinced Lowe of the value of his new aircraft carrier, for a few days later he wrote the Commandant of the Washington Navy Yard that “It is my intention to use permanently the boat lately fitted up for balloon purposes.”
By January 1862, Lowe’s balloon corps had expanded its operations westward, with the dispatching of John Steiner and one balloon to Cairo, Illinois. Preparations were underway there for an attack on the Confederate stronghold at Island No. 10 in the Mississippi River, and both Lowe and Steiner believed that balloon reconnaissance would be of value to that theater.
On arriving at Cairo, however, Steiner was brushed off by the army. “Arrived here on Wednesday and reported to General Allen’s,” he reported to Lowe, “but he gave me little satisfaction…. I cannot get any assistance here, they say they know nothing about my balloon business…. They even laugh.” As a result, Steiner offered his services to the naval commander, Andrew H. Foote, who gladly accepted them.
Steiner had observed the advantages of waterborne balloon operations in the Potomac area, and the similarity of the situation at Island No. 10 was immediately apparent. Obtaining the use of a large flatboat, from which a balloon could be operated in a fashion similar to that employed with the Custis on the Potomac, he loaded his equipment aboard and anchored at a point upriver from the Union fleet.
Then on 25 March, John Steiner made the first waterborne balloon ascension in the western theater of operations. Although the weather was hazy, the log of the mortar division, for whom he was spotting, indicated that “the experiment proved satisfactory.”
The following day he again ascended from the flatboat, and the observations were reported to have been of considerable assistance in correcting the fire of the mortar boats. With the surrender of Island No. 10 shortly afterwards, however, the waterborne balloon experiment on western waters came to an end.
Meanwhile, back in the Virginia peninsular campaign, the use of the balloon boat, the former George Washington Parke Custis continued. Lowe was determined to prove the worth of his balloons, and he often advanced to the very forefront of the army. In one instance, for example, he reported that “We moved by water to White House Landing, the balloon boat being the first to land, and was even some distance ahead of the gunboats, while the first night the balloon guard was the advance picket on the river bottom.”
During this same period, waterborne balloon operations were further extended when Commodore Charles Wilkes had one of his ships tow a balloon along a section of the Potomac River, holding it at an elevation of 1,000 feet while examining the surrounding countryside.
The Navy’s increasing role in waterborne balloon operations at that time is further shown by the order of Commodore Wilkes which established the first aircraft carrier task force. “It is desirable,” Wilkes wrote the commander of the USS Wachusett, “to make a balloon reconnaissance in the neighborhood of Fort Powhatan. I desire you to superintend and take charge of the party. The Stepping Stones will be ordered to tow the balloon lighter down tomorrow morning, and leave at 4 o’clock. Near the Fort at Powhatan Station you will find the Delaware, Tioga, and Port Royal-the former off Windmill Point-which vessels you will use as guards and, shou1d the balloonists report any works in progress, you will shell them effectually and destroy the works if, in your opinion, you have sufficient force to overcome any opposition that may be expected. Gather all the information from the balloonists you can, and return by the convoy in the afternoon.”
Several ascensions were made as the task force worked its way up the Potomac, but there is no clear indication of results. The entire record of waterborne balloon operations becomes almost nonexistent in this period.
In this connection, it must be recognized that Lowe’s ballOon corps, from its beginning, had been a sort of semi-independent, quasi-military, quasi-civil organization. Nominally attached to the topographical engineers of the army, it was held together largely by Lowe himself.
Lowe’s control of his balloon corps was weakened in late 1862 and early 1863 by a combination of illness, which forced him to take sick leave, and the transfer of some of his strongest supporters (in particular Generals George B. McClellan, Fitz-John Porter, and Humphreys) to duties where they were no longer in a position to support his work. To make matters even worse, the new chief of the topographical engineers (under whom Lowe worked directly) refused to recognize the independent way in which the balloon corps operated.
The ensuing snarl of red tape made further work impossible for a man of Lowe’s temperament, and led to his resignation immediately after the Battle of Chancellorsville in May of 1862. Without Lowe’s aggressive leadership, the corps literally fell apart at the seams and there was no further significant use of balloons during the war. The George Washington Parke Custis was sent to the Washington Navy Yard for repairs in the spring of 1863 and soon fell into obscurity with the remainder of the balloon corps.
The potential of waterborne aerial operations was, of course, never fully recognized during the Civil War; and it was not until the airplane was proved successful that the Navy recognized the value of eyes in the sky. Even so, the great aircraft carrier task forces of today must trace their heritage back to the George Washington Parke Custis and the balloon pioneers of the Civil War, who first demonstrated the value of aerial observations from a floating platform.