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.
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.
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.