Mystery night balloons from Capers’ Island: An odd Confederate report

It’s Friday and I’m feeling in a lighter mood with respect to blogging.  So here’s a bit of a mystery from the Civil War records – a report from Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley, sent to General Beauregard’s headquarters in Charleston, one day shy of 150 years ago:

Mount Pleasant, January 25, 1864.
Brig. Gen. Thomas Jordan:

I have information that balloons have gone up for the last three nights from Capers’ Island; they have not gone up in the daytime. The object must have been to discover camp-fires. I have given directions to insure their seeing a number of them after to-night, and shall commence rocket practice. Shall also send a reconnoitering party in that direction.

R. S. Ripley,

Balloons?  Night balloons at that!

Capers’ Island is northeast of Sullivan’s Island, specifically between Long Island and Bull’s Island as part of the chain of barrier islands on the coast.


During the war, activity there was limited to patrols and soundings.  No record of any large Federal landings… or specific to this report, balloon operations.  In order for the Federals to operate a balloon there, the Army would need the Navy’s support and a whole lot of “stuff” landed on Capers’ Island (or some naval ship serving as balloon-carrier, which did exist at the time BTW).  More to the point, there’s no official records pointing to Federal balloon activity anywhere in the Department of the South in January 1864.

So if we rule out an Army balloon team operating on Capers’ Island, what did Ripley’s observers see?  If we can rule out Federal balloon activity, likewise we can dismiss Confederate balloons.   Perhaps observers were witnessing some natural phenomenon – temperature inversions, Venus or other planet from an unusual viewing angle, or “swamp gas.”  Or….


Should we be suspicious this report came from Roswell Ripley????

Another possibility to consider – Ripley might have exaggerated (I won’t say “fabricated” or “lied” unless other information comes to light) the observations to catch the attention of his commander.  The message carried a postscript, “Forward to Savannah if General Jordan is there.”  At the time General Beauregard was in Savannah.  He was partly there to inspect the defenses, as Federal activity was expected.  He was also there to consult with local commanders about a recent attempt at mutiny at one of the fortifications.  Coincidentally, there had been a threat of mutiny from the ranks in Ripley’s command on Sullivan’s Island.  Maybe Ripley wanted to shift his commander’s attention back to Charleston’s main defenses.

Setting aside the balloon question, this report offers some fodder for sidebar discussions.  Ripley indicated his troops were taking what we’d call today counter-intelligence measures – lighting up more campfires to confuse any Federal observer.  And secondly, he planed to “commence rocket practice.”  Both sides used signal rockets throughout the war.  These were generally pyrotechnic devices, or in plain speak – fireworks.  While I cannot rule out the notion Ripley would fire a rocket AT a balloon to shoot it down, more likely the “practice” was simply another measure to confuse enemy observers.

Ripley’s half dozen lines are the only mention of balloons operating on that sector of the South Carolina coast.  Official records are silent on any other activity, save routine patrols.  At any rate, if you see Charleston mentioned on some future History Channel program, you heard it here first.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, page 543.)