Fortress Monroe: The Key to the South, Part 1

Before I spend any time getting into my visit to Fort Monroe and meeting with Cindi, I think it would be helpful to give a little context and history of the fort itself. Have you ever wondered how it came to pass that the United States spends 17 times as much on national defense than the next 10 countries combined? A good place to begin to answer that question is with the defensive forts built along the eastern shore. Of which Fortress Monroe is one.

After the American Revolutionary War a handful of forts were built around the country in strategic locations, like West Point, to defend or repulse specific areas from attack. Then the war of 1812 saw the United States invaded and it’s capitol destroyed. From then on the U.S. took the military establishment to a whole new level and built a series of what ultimately became 42 forts. Fort Monroe, begun in 1819 and completed in 1834, is a Third System fort. The First System being British forts taken during the Revolution. The Second System being those forts constructed after the Revolution. Shaped as a six sided polygon with pointed corners Fortress Monroe is built of brick and stone and is surrounded by a moat. It is the largest fort built in the United States. It was designed by Simon Bernard, a French General of Engineers. Why hire out a Frenchman to build American defenses? Because the US had no school of engineers at the time, thus no engineers to design forts.

Fort Monroe-Chesapeak

Since no other country occupied the lower portion of the North American continent in 1800, save The United States, all her potential threats were on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. When planning its defense it was only necessary to be concerned with a naval invasion. In the process of reconstruction after 1812 President James Madison created a commission to plan and build a network of coastal defenses up and down the eastern seaboard. You can see from the map above what a major thoroughfare the Chesapeake Bay is. From it’s mouth one can get from the Atlantic Ocean to the heart of Pennsylvania, to Baltimore MD, to Washington DC and Richmond, VA. Not to mention the peninsula shared by Maryland and Delaware. It accesses the heart of America. Fortress Monroe was built right on a spur at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay on the waters edge of a major shipping channel called Hampton Roads.

Ft Monroe Now and Then

At the beginning of the Civil War the US military was in chaos. No one knew for certain what allegiance military personnel would favor.  Most of these Third System forts in southern territory fell into the hands of the Confederacy. All in Virginia fell. Save one. Fort Monroe. As a result this made it the most important Union military installation during the Civil War. From here Federal troops could threaten Richmond itself as well as stage supplies and launch attacks down the coastline. It could also threaten Gosport Shipyard (now Norfolk Navy Yard) across the bay. Gosport/Norfolk was the maritime capitol of the United States and had fallen into the hands of the Confederacy. At the outset of the war Fort Monroe was considered the front lines and it was under these circumstances that Richard and John arrived.

The pictures above show how the fort looked in 1860 and how it looks now. At the time the Hygia Hotel, featured prominently in the foreground of the print, was a high end spa and get away. Unfortunately, it no longer exists. The island also features a lighthouse that still stands (I have placed a red circle around it to indicate its orientation). The fort housed the School of Artillery and was still active until it’s decommission by President Obama in 2011. It is now considered a National Monument and park with a historical museum. This is were Cindi Verser and I planned to meet.

Show & Tell

Last week I was fortunate enough to be invited to do a presentation to a class in Philadelphia. I saw this as an opportunity to start sharing 73 and get some reactions. I had been working alone on this project for long enough and it was time the story started seeing the light of day.

My cousin, Dr. Jeremy Sullivan (who has been a strong support throughout this entire project) teaches a class called Graphic Text at Arcadia University. He has a PhD in American History, is a fan of graphic novels and had recently charged his students with an assignment to create a biographical 4 page graphic novel. My work on 73 dovetailed nicely with his class assignment so Jeremy asked me to share my process and adventures with his class, giving them a behind the scenes glimpse of what goes into a project like this.


I covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time. I began with the beginning. Detailing some of the family history including my grandparents William and Mary O’Brien (Left), and introduced the main characters of the story; brothers Richard (Top) and John Emmet O’Brien (Bottom).


Then it was on to some of the tools and resources I accumulated while learning about the telegraph and the civil war. Pictured are the pocket telegraph key and relay found in my grandmother’s closet and belonging to Richard O’Brien (left), my library of accumulated material that includes various picture books, articles, all the books published by civil war telegraph operators, novels from the period and a volume of Harper’s Weekly from the Civil War. Also pictured is my studio and work space set up; Drafting table, computer, printer, scanner, camera, library, all the resources I’ll need within easy reach.

Prelim Work

Next I discussed the preliminary work. How I began organizing the story on a yellow legal pad. Determining characters, locations and important events. The intention is to identify all the major components of the story and put them on the table so I know what I have to play with and can start giving it shape.


I ended the presentation with sketches of the first 14 pages of the story and a read through of the scripted scene. It features a 13 year old John Emmet being called to duty in the United States Military Telegraph Corps and his subsequent arrival at Fort Monroe.

Positive Connections

fort-monroe2Shortly after I sent an inquiry to DB Johnson I received a reply which opened or door I never could have imagined. As it turns out DB married into John Emmet’s family and shares an interest in the O’Brien’s along with a friend of hers named Cindi Verser. She described Cindi as “the expert on the O’Briens who were in the Civil War as telegraphers”.

I can’t thank DB enough for putting me in touch with Cindi, and it didn’t take long for me to make contact with some stunning results. Cindi’s story is full of happy coincidences. It began with her enthusiasm for the telegraph. While learning Morse Code she came across mention of the O’Brien brother as they both play a role in the history of the telegraph. Both Richard and John spent time at Fort Monroe during the Civil War and as luck would have it not only does Fort Monroe still stand, but Cindi volunteers there as well. When she discovered the connection she began researching the Ft. Monroe records and has since continued to pull on threads and fill binders of information regarding O’Brien history.

She was just as surprised to get an email from me as I was to learn about her. I never thought it possible, but I think it’s safe to say I have an official family historian in Cindi. I would have to meet her in person, visit Fort Monroe and learn more about the role it played in the Civil War.

Lincoln and the Telegraph

With all this research I have been doing it’s easy to imagine how excited I was to see Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Lincoln. I was more than pleased to find a scene set in the Telegraph Office at the War Department. By all accounts Lincoln spent many hours there crafting messages and awaiting updates. While neither Richard nor John are pictured in the film it appears that their compatriots Samuel Brown and David Homer Bates were. Both Samuel and David were members of the immortal four along with Richard. Comparing my mother’s ambrotype (Brown on top, Bates on the bottom) and a screen shot of the actors playing the scene I’m impressed with the resemblances. Daniel Day Lewis even address the operator as “Sam”.


Here is a clip from the late night scene in the telegraph office.

Addendum. February 9, 2013 : I have since leaned, from an article in the Richmond Times Dispatch, that this character appearing in the film is credited as being Samuel Beckwith, General Grant’s personal telegraph operator. However, as Beckwith was stationed with Grant and not at the War Department the character is mostly likely based on source material from David Homer Bates.

Making the Connection

Richard Sketch-Email Last year, my girlfriend’s sister got married in California and I brought John Emmet’s book along, Telegraphing in Battle, to keep me company on the plane. The book details both John and Richard’s experience as telegraph operators during the Civil War. It is comprised of John’s recollections (he was in his 60’s at the time he wrote it) and includes many entries from Richard’s personal war diary.

Their duty as telegraph operators and assignment at Fort Monroe put them in the thick of combat operations in the theater around Richmond, VA. Besides participating in the first steps of what can now be considered the Information Age as well as the first practical application of electricity, they managed to be eyewitnesses to just about every technical innovation and invention those four yeas had to offer. They were on hand for the Battle of the Ironclads; they wired hot air balloons to telegraph reconnaissance information; they encountered land mines for the first time (then called torpedoes) and explosives detonated by electric charge; they saw war change from lined up formations at the outset to trench warfare by it’s end; they saw battles, murder trials, executions; the first negro troops and the first free southern negro communities.

Aside from the technical innovations, they met just about every key figure in the war: Lincoln, Stanton, Grant, Sherman, Butler, McClelland, Wool, Carnegie and Davis. Richard even met my future great great grandmother, Sarah Harrison Marks.

John Sketch-Email

With all this drama and excitement, and my experience as an illustrator and designer, it wasn’t a stretch for me to consider putting their story together into a graphic novel. With that in mind, my research would expand to include not only my family history, but the Civil War as a whole, the people Richard and John encountered, technical details about the telegraph, and just about anything I came across that could help me build and describe the world of the early 1860’s. Shown here are my first forays into drawing our two heroes. The one on the left is Richard in his early 30’s. The one of the right is John at age 15.

Look For One Thing, Find Another

It occurred to me that Richard may have been notable enough to warrant an obituary in a major newspaper so I began checking periodicals. While searching for information about his death I came across the website and was pleasantly surprised to find an entry for him.DB Johnson

It wasn’t an obituary, but Richard’s entry contained some good information about his family, birth, death and Civil War service. It also featured a picture of Richard in his later years. I thought to make note of the grave and perhaps visit it someday.

I was more curious about how this entry came to be and who put it together. Someone out there knows more than I do about my Great Great Grandfather and I wanted to connect with that person. The page indicated that it was created by DB Johnson. The name was hot and when I clicked on it another window opened in my email to directly send DB a message. I included my name and contact information as well as a little of the family history I knew, and hit send. Maybe I would get a reply, maybe I wouldn’t. Either way I had some more information to go on.

John Emmet O’Brien: Telegraphing In Battle

JEO-TIBThis is a tremendous find and completely out of the blue. While searching Google Books for references to Richard O’Brien a book penned by Richard’s younger brother appears. In 1910 John Emmet O’Brien published a book called “Telegraphing In Battle” recounting his exploits as the youngest telegraph operator in the Union Army. It is comprehensive documentation of both Richard and John’s experience during the Civil War and provides more than a little family background.

John, an intelligent and ambitious boy, wants to follow in the footsteps of  his brother’s coworker Andrew Carnegie. Like Carnegie John starts his career as a messenger but  becomes discouraged until Richard teaches him how to operate a telegraph. At the ripe age of ten he is put on as a relief operator along the Pennsylvania Rail Road Line. Not long after the war begins it becomes apparent that the Federal Army needs operators. Richard messages home and asks John to come to Fort Monroe and take up duties. John makes his way there, through Baltimore, and arrives in early 1862. He is 13 years old.

Much of John’s book is filled with excerpts from Richard’s personal diary, which includes their first hand account of the Battle of Hampton Roads. John was the operator on duty at Ft. Monroe during the battle and Richard set out with forces to support the wooden ships wounded by the Merrimack in the harbor. The picture above is from 1864. John is fifteen.