Balloons over Charleston: Confederate balloon operations in 1863

Earlier at the close of the summer, I promised a follow up on one of the lesser known aspects of the Morris Island Campaign. With Civil War ballooning in the news this week, I was reminded to close on that promise.

We often associate balloon operations during the Civil War with the Federals, and specifically the early phases of the war in the east.  Not only were Federal balloons active on other fronts (for instance at Island No. 10), but also on the other side of the lines.  The Civil War Trust has a good, concise Q&A format article on Civil War ballooning.  And there are several general overviews of Civil War ballooning out there (and others specific to the work of T.S.C. Lowe with the Army of the Potomac).   So allow me to skip forward a bit to discuss the specifics of the balloon operated at Charleston in 1863.

The Charleston angle starts with Captain Langdon Cheves.  In the spring of 1862, Cheves supervised the construction of a balloon in Savannah, Georgia.  Cheves also organized a “corps” to operate the balloon.  He turned to  Charles Cevor, then serving as a private in the Georgia volunteers,  who had earned his keep before the war piloting balloons.  Cevor received a captains’ commission for this detail.

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Cevor sought out volunteers to aid him with the detail.  One of these was Private Adolphus E. Morse, then serving with the Chatham Artillery outside Charleston.  Morse later received a brevet commission to lieutenant for the duty.

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Notice both were carried on the rolls as “detailed for special service” with the ballooning not stated by name.  After outfitting, the “balloon corps” traveled to Richmond, where their services were most needed.

The initial deployment of this “balloon corps” was just short of disaster.  The balloon carrier, CSS Teaser, ran aground in the James River and was captured by the USS Maratanza on July 4, 1862.  While Cevor and his team escaped, the balloon was captured with the ship.

Cevor returned to Savannah where he set about constructing a new balloon.  In late July 1862, he purchased $475.83 of materials for the second balloon.

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Through August and September he purchased more materials and contracted for labor to complete the balloon, at a cost of $699.74.

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By November 19, he could report:

The Balloon and its appliances under my immediate charge are in good order & ready for services in Charleston or immediate vicinity where unobstructed conveyance for a Balloon inflated can be obtained for a distanced not exceeding ten or twelve miles but it would be impossible to use it at Pocotaligo owing to the absence of a Gas Generator which I would most respectfully suggest and recommend should be constructed immediately which could be mounted on a Carriage the cost of would not exceed Two Thousand Dollars $2000.


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Without a mobile gas generator, Cevor limited his activity to Charleston.  A receipt from the Charleston Gas Light Company in March 1863 indicates the balloon was active at that time over the harbor.

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That’s 25,500 cubic feet of gas at a total cost of $102.  Note the cost at $4 per unit.

Throughout the spring, Cevor and Morse flew the balloon to report on Federal activity outside the harbor, monitoring the Federal fleet and activities on Folly Island.  When the Federals assaulted Morris Island on July 10, the balloonists turned their attention there.  The ascents, of course, where visible to Federals on Morris Island.  On July 21, Major Thomas Brooks noted “This morning the enemy made a reconnaissance from a balloon over Fort Johnson.”   Somewhat coincidental with the date of Brooks’ report is a receipt issued to the gas company on July 20 for gas “inflating balloon for an ascension“:

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A little less gas needed at that time, with only 21,000 cubic feet purchased.   But the cost of the gas had doubled in a few short months.

A few days after this ascent, Brigadier-General Thomas Jordon, General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Chief-of-Staff, mentioned the balloon in correspondence with  Lieutenant-Colonel D.B. Harris, Chief Engineer, “Whenever another balloon reconnaissance is made, the commanding general desires that some officer shall make the ascension who also knows the country to be reconnoitered; some engineer officer, if one can be found.”  At that time Beauregard was not as much concerned about counting campfires as he was about charting the Federal fortifications going up on Morris Island and other locations.

At some point in October or November, the ballooning came to an abrupt halt.  There is mention by Naval observers of a balloon operating at night over Fort Johnson on November 2, with lights strung underneath.  But that report did not state if the balloon was for observation or used as a signal device. Some sources say the balloon was lost during a storm.  Official records provide no direct conformation.  But at that time Cevor was assigned to engineering details.  Morse returned to his duties with the Chatham Artillery.  Although a Pennsylvanian by birth, Morse served through the war with his Confederate battery.  After the war he settled in Texas and is buried in the Oakwood Cemetery, Corsicana, Texas.