It occurred to me that the most obvious place to begin was with the hand written inscription inside the relay. It reads as follows:
“Capture of Fort Fisher, N.C.
1864. Presented by
Capt. Wm MacKintosh to his friend and comrade
(unknown) S. Military Teleg
Dept. Va, & NC.
Who was Captain MacKintosh and the Military Telegraph? And what happened at Fort Fisher? Beyond those references I would include the key words “Richard O’Brien” and the “telegraph” and, starting with the easiest resource, see what Google would turn up.
The first few things I found went a long way to fill in the picture. I didn’t find any references to Capt. MacKintosh. Yet. However, Richard’s name was mentioned in a book called “The Military Telegraph During The Civil War in the United States, With an Exposition of Ancient and Modern Means of Communication, and the Federal and Confederate Cipher Systems” By William R. Plum. The references to Richard were seeded in three or four paragraphs spread throughout the book. It also mentioned a Fort but not Fort Fisher. It was Fort Monroe.
A few years ago my grandmother passed away. She lived to be 93 and spent the last 20 years of her life living in sunny Florida. When she passed my mother and I made the trip for her funeral and stayed in town a little while afterward to get her things in order. While cleaning out a closet in her tv room my mother found a few objects that she showed to me. They belonged to my grandfather William Austin O’Brien and they were relics from his grandfather Richard O’Brien. For years my mother had told me that she had a long dead relative from Scranton who was something of a success. He had amassed a bit of a fortune that the family had lived off for a few generations. All she really knew was that Richard O’Brien was pretty high up the food chain at AT&T a long time ago. And I confess, when she told me these things I didn’t really care too much for someone who was more or less described to me as some sort of corporate big shot.
It wasn’t until I held these objects in my hand that I became curious. My mother also mentioned that Richard worked with the telegraph, and what I was holding was telegraph equipment. Equipment from, if the inscription was accurate, 1864. With that knowledge, in my spare time, I set out in an attempt to learn what I could about my great great grandfather.