State Highway Marker

State Highway Marker

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Talking Wire- 1864

WASHINGTON, D. C., May 27, 1864.

R. O'BRIEN, Butlers Headquarters;
I wait you to prepare for work in direction of White House from Williamsburg without delay. I do not know to what extent it will be necessary to continue working line to Butlers present headquarters, but hope we may be permitted to abandon it all to enable you to bring away operators, builders, and material. The line from Williamsburg to White House and beyond is of greatest importance; it will be the only means of communication with Grant, and must be built without a moments delay. I need a building party from here to commence work at White House, continuing thence to Grants headquarters. Confer with Sheldon* as to plans and route to build upon. Answer quick. You must use all the arbitraries in your cipher. Important words should not come in English. Leave snow out. Butlers headquarters to work cipher with his card key, and direct him to use great care.


May 28, 1864.
Mr. SHELDON, Telegraph Operator, Fort Monroe: I should have no doubt that the telegraph route most easily protected would be across the York at Gloucester Point, thence up to West Point, thence across the Mattapony between the two rivers. The route by the old road and New Kent Court-House would be broken all the time until General Grant crosses the Chickahominy.

BENJ. F. BUTLER, Major-General, Comanding.

-The war of the rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies.; Series 1- Volume 36 (Part II)

*probably George D. Sheldon

Richard O'Brien

In the late summer Mr O Brien on the recommendation of Mr. Carnegie, was assigned as chief operator to Headquarters Department of Southeast, then under command of General Butler at Fort Monroe. Two days later the Confederates cut his line to Newport News and he set it up again.
Mr O'Brien saw the fight of the "Monitor" and the "Merrimac," the first ironclads, in Hampton Roads; the landing of McClellan's army for the peninsular campaign, for which he helped to run lines, and lay the Chesapeake cable; the taking of Norfolk, where he was transferred to lay cable and run wires to Suffolk and other points.
When Grant was made general-in-chief and started all the armies in a grand concerted offensive, Mr. O'Brien was made chief operator, Army of the James, whose route was the James River and whose objective was Petersburg. At this time 1864 Mr. O'Brien was but twenty-four years of age. He organized the land and cable lines in that field and had communication ready for Grant when he brought the Army of the Potomac from the bloody Wilderness Campaign to City Point.
In this campaign the field telegraph had been developed to the point of reeling insulated wire on the battlefield from muleback and raising it from the ground on lances.
During most of the long siege of Petersburg and Richmond. Mr O'Brien maintained the James River and Appomattox River cables and the land wires in front of Richmond, while Chief Operator Caldwell relieved him by taking over those in front of Petersburg. Mr. O'Brien spoke of the heroism and sacrifice of his brave boys of the military telegraph in this field of death by buried bomb wounds or close calls by shell and bullet of capture and long imprisonment in starving prison camps of heroic escape and scouting ventures. It was on his wire, carried closest to Richmond, that at last the fateful message sped to the War Department: "We have taken Richmond."    

-Telegraph and Telephone Age
No. 18, September 16, 1917
J.B. Taltavall, 1917

Photograph from
-Lincoln in the telegraph office; recollections of the United States Military Telegraph Corps during the Civil War
David Homer Bates
The Century Co. 1907

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