George A. Custer: Aeronaut


Lieutenant George Armstrong Custer’s performance in the field during the US Civil War caught the eye of General George McClellan, leader of the Army of the Potomac. In early 1862, Lieutenant Custer was added to the staff of General McClellan as a topographical engineer. Lieutenant Custer had finished last in his class at West Point, a fact that in peace times would have more than likely prevented him from performing this duty. The Union Army was short of everything early in the war, engineers included, opening a door for George Custer. Lt. Custer was placed under the direct command of General William (Baldy) Smith, where his first detail was the supervision of grave digging. Eventually Lt. Custer’s battlefield analytical skills began to shine through along with his natural ability as a topographer.

While Custer was making his mark, Thaddeus Lowe had won approval from President Abraham Lincoln to use his observation balloons near the front lines. Most of the Union officers objected to the balloons and thought they were a total waste of time and resources. The balloons were tethered and had telegraph lines attached to them so that instant battlefield updates could be sent along the wires. The balloons came in different sizes, the larger balloons were used at the higher altitudes.

Lt. Custer was probably the first Union officer to ascend in one of the Union balloons along with fellow Aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe. It appears to me that Lt. Custer may have been the first unofficial member of the US Army’s Air Cav! Lt. Custer put his map making and observation skills to good use on his flights. The enemy Confederate States of America Army had several movements discovered from the aerial observation posts that could not be seen from the ground. Lt. Custer also turned in some good maps that were used by higher ranking officers in their planning sessions.

I have been unable to locate any photographs of Lt. Custer in one of the balloons. There is widely circulated photograph of Thaddeus Lowe aloft that is sometimes cited as Custer. The History Channel has an excellent entry in their "Man, Moment, Machine" series about the US Army's Civil War use of the observation balloon titled "Lincoln & The Flying, Spying Machine".

A General George Armstrong Custer field notebook containing one of his aerial maps is in the Doctor Lawrence A. Frost collection at the Monroe County Historical Museum in Michigan. A reproduction of the April 27, 1862 map is on display and pictured below. The map was made during the battle for Yorktown.






The image of Aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe that is sometimes thought to be Lieutenant Custer.

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