The Development of Communication Methods from the Balloons to the Ground - 1862

Military Ballooning During the Early Civil War - pages 323 - 329

    Communication from the balloons was affected by three general methods, telegraph, dropped messages, and by visual signals. For general transmission of telegraph messages, the usual process of spelling out words was followed, the same method used by commercial telegraphers. A code was developed for the transmission of standard information, which cut sending and receiving time to a minimum.  This code consisted of a series of numbers, and some letters, each representing standard words, phrases, and sentences that were common to many of the messages sent. By proper combination of these numbers an observation could be reported in a minimum of signals.
    For example, the number 51 designated the right of a friendly line or position; 8 designated the left; and 35 the center. The cardinal points of the compass were represented  by the letters N, S, E, and W, with the usual combinations of these letters. The numeral 236 designated the sentence, "I  can observe cavalry in the direction of."  The signal for "advancing," "marching towards," or "moving," was the number 24.  From these examples, a message given as  "236 -  Taylor's  -  24  -  NW  -  8," would be read by the receiving operator as "I can observe cavalry in the direction of Taylor's House advancing northwest on our left." Numbers representing infantry, pickets, artillery, wagon trains, smoke, and other similar intelligence were adopted in the code, as well as procedure signals for the convenience of the operators. A number of qualifying and descriptive words and phrases were also reduced to signal numerals, including those which indicated the relative size of a force, the speed at which it moved, and other tactical information. The code thus adopted naturally did not apply to all messages sent from the cars. Long, detailed reports of observation could not be reduced to such simple terms, but on many occasions, when information could be so compressed and speed was essential, the code system could be a valuable aid.

    When there was no necessity for highly rapid transmission of information, or when instruments or operators were not available, communications from the air were effected by dropping messages. This procedure, sometimes referred to as the "paper express," consisted of weighting a written dispatch with a bullet, and fastening it to a ring attached to a mooring cable, which guided the message to the ground station below. When time was not essential in the delivery of reports, the observers sometimes took notes during ascensions, and wrote detailed reports after descending, which they delivered by messenger or telegraph.

    During a major action, the telegraph lines from the balloons were often connected with lines running to general headquarters, in order that observations might be reported to the army commander as well as to the officer commanding the area where the balloon was operating. At Seven Pines this procedure was carried to the extreme of connecting the balloon wires through to the War Department office in Washington, via Fortress Monroe. Just prior to the battle of Chancellorsville, Hooker ordered communication established between both balloons and his headquarters, and during the action when the main lines got out of order, aerial dispatches were telegraphed to the adjacent ground station and were then relayed by visual flag signals to general headquarters.

    Visual signaling from the balloons was not practiced to any great extent. Some flag communication between Lowe's balloon at Pohick Church and another manned by one of his assistants at Budd's Ferry was established in March, 1862, with the assistance of signal officers who took charge of the experiment. Sometime later Colonel Myer, McClellan's signal officer, made recommendations and suggestions for visual communication during operations on the Peninsula. He also suggested that similar communications might be opened from one of the balloons to the gunboats on the James River by means of rockets fired from the car. On several occasions balloons were sent up to observe rocket signals fired according to pre-arranged codes from distant parts of the lines. From the air these pyrotechnic signals could be seen more readily and at greater distance than from ground signal stations. During the battle of Seven Pines visual signals supplemented the telegraph, and Myer instructed his signal officer at Heintzelman's headquarters to "look for signals from balloon nearest you and report to General McClellan, who is in front near Sumner. Balloon will reply to signal 'AF' which you will make with a 6-foot flag and 16-foot pole.

    The possibilities of long-distance signaling by balloon led Lowe to experiment with small "caloric" balloons for this purpose in the fall of 1862. In November of that year he reported to General Burnside's chief of staff that his train was equipped with "small signal balloons that can be used day or night." Pyrotechnic flares used with these globes at night, he added, would be more effective than rockets. Several weeks later he designed a complete signaling system based on the use of the hot-air balloons which he submitted to Burnside's headquarters.

    The envelopes were constructed of strong linen paper, light and compact when folded, and required little space when carried in the field. Ascensive power was provided by a "fire-proof inflating apparatus," which furnished heated air to raise the envelopes. In size the signal balloons varied from 6 to 20 feet in diameter, depending on the distance over which information was to be conveyed. For day operations, white envelopes with distinctive stripes and markings of black were recommended. Elevated to a high altitude, these balloons and contrasting symbols could be observed with the aid of powerful glasses as far distant as thirty miles, Lowe asserted. In addition to the distinguishing marks on the envelopes, rigid panels or "flags" were to be suspended beneath the balloons, each bearing distinct and conspicuous devices and symbols. Combinations of these symbols and markings could be multiplied indefinitely with a small number of balloons, and thus any number of different signals could be sent. At night the same envelopes were to be equiped with powerful calcium flares of different colors and intense brilliance. Combinations of colors, arrangements, and of the number of flares sent up, like the symbols and panels for day use, also made possible an indefinite number of signals. The flares were designed to burn from five to thirty minutes, a feature that rendered them more useful than ordinary rockets. Such pyrotechnic signals, when sent up to a high elevation, Lowe declared, could be visible at ranges as great as forty miles.

    Burnside ordered the construction of several of these signal balloons for experimental use, but according to Lowe, they were prepared in a hurry from poor materials and were not capable of demonstrating the full merits of the system. After Burnside had been relieved the new chief of staff, Major General Daniel Butterfield, conducted additional experiments with similar material. The results of these tests are not disclosed in the records, but later developments indicate that the plan was not fully tried. In March, 1863, the proposed system came to the attention of Major General George Stoneman, commanding Hooker's cavalry corps, who was shortly to make his extensive cavalry raid in an effort to cut Lee's communications with Richmond. Stoneman, possibly anticipating the advantage of such a system of long-distance communication with Hooker during this excursion, notified Assistant Adjutant General Williams that "Professor Lowe has an arrangement for transmitting information from distant points by signal balloons, which I think might be made available and valuable with cavalry operating in the field. I have thought the subject over a good deal, and if the professor can get authority to secure the necessary apparatus, I will take measures to test, and if possible, put his plan into practice."

    Stoneman's suggestion was referred to Lowe for an estimate of cost and time necessary to provide the test materials. Lowe replied that equipment for trying out the system from every angle and in all possible combinations, would require an expenditure of not more than $300, and the individual balloons complete would not exceed $6 each if ordered in quantity. A week would suffice for making all arrangements. General Williams then inquired why the signal balloons used in Burnside's and Butterfield's experiments could not be used, and suggested that if Lowe had any of these in his train a board would be convened to witness tests with them. Lowe then explained that he had left only a few of the envelopes ordered by Burnside, and that because of their inferior quality they would not give a satisfactory demonstration of what could be accomplished. The seemingly high figure of cost quoted, he added, covered the cost of every variety of marking, panel, flare, and symbol, in order that the most effective might be selected for use. The explanations did not satisfy Williams. The communication was returned. "Under the circumstances not favorably considered. Professor Lowe will notify General Stoneman," was the final indorsement from Hooker's headquarters.

    Despite this rejection, Lowe still hoped to secure the adoption of his plan, even after he left the army. In July, 1863, he offered the system to Colonel Myer, chief of the newly organized Signal Corps. Although Myer was at first disposed to give the plan favorable consideration, its adoption into the signal service was never effected.