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.

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