In response to yesterday's post on the first fixed-wing aircraft carrier, a reader reminded us that the USS Birmingham was not the first ship to serve as a temporary floating host to airborne military units. The deployment of gas-filled balloons from a makeshift vessel in the Potomac river by the Union Army during the Civil War was one of the first successful marriages of airborne and maritime forces in military history.
Beginning in 1861, the Union Army had an active balloon corps. The Union Army Balloon Corp, led by presidential appointee Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, consisted of seven vessels, the largest at 32,000 cubic feet, used primarily for reconnaissance and surveilling Confederate troops. Most of these units were launched from ground bases; seaborne balloons had only been utilized once before, in 1849, when an Austrian vessel, Vulcano, launched a failed attempt to bomb Venice with manned hot air balloons.
The Union did not utilize a maritime vessel as a staging area until August of 1961. Lowe, with the assistance of fellow aeronaut John LaMountain, directed the construction of the first real aircraft carrier. The two rebuilt a coal barge, the George Washington Parke Custis, gutting the deck of its rigging to accommodate gas generators and a flight deck superstructure. The Custis was part of its own battle group, towed by the Stepping Stone and accompanying sloop Wachusett, the gunboats Tioga and Port Royal, and the armed transport Delaware during the course of its operational lifespan.