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To warn of CSS Virginia, he tapped out a 't-mail'
AT NOON ON MARCH 8, 1862, a 13-year-old Irish immigrant, watching from the ramparts at Fort Monroe, noticed a line of thick black smoke creeping along behind Sewells Point toward Hampton Roads.
John O'Brien rushed to his telegraph key and, with his heart in his throat, tapped out the first warning: the long-feared monster, the CSS Virginia, was coming.
O'Brien, the youngest-ever member of the U.S. Military Telegraph Corps, had come down to Fort Monroe, along with his brother Richard and other "immortals," as some called them, to send and receive war-related messages. They were part of an elite cadre of operators who, often in the thick of battle, relayed crucial messages. Their "t-mails" - they were actually called that - were as fast and accurate as today's text messages.
These messages, decoded from rapid dots and dashes, then written out in longhand and rushed to an intended recipient, read today like blow-by-blow accounts of history.
In a book that O'Brien wrote about his wartime experiences, he recounts the messages that a colleague sent from a vantage point at Newport News Point: -"She is steering straight for the Cumberland," the operator reported, referring to one of the wooden federal warships the Virginia (or Merrimack) would maul that day.
-"The Cumberland gives her a broadside." -"She heels over." -"No: She comes up again." -"She has rammed the Cumberland." -"God! The Cumberland is sinking."
-"The Cumberland has fired her last broadside and gone down."
The next victim was another wooden warship, the Congress. By the time the Virginia was through, its decks were awash in blood.
The official records of the Union and Confederate navies are also packed with telegrams:
"We want powder by the barrel," one of the generals in charge of the land battery at the point signaled. "We want blankets for the crews of the Cumberland and the Congress. The Merrimack has it all her way this side of Signal Point and will probably burn the Congress, now aground, with the white flag flying, and our sailors swimming ashore."
These instantaneous eyewitness accounts, more than any carefully considered memoir could be, are among the best records of the famous battle of the ironclads. That night, the Union ironclad Monitor arrived on the scene, and the following day the two armored ships clashed for four hours, forever changing the nature of naval warfare.
It's an event The Mariners' Museum is observing this weekend on the battle's 149th anniversary.
As it happens, museum specialist Cindi Verser, also an amateur radio operator, has been avidly researching the military telegraphers - John O'Brien in particular - and hopes to write a book on the subject.
"I just really feel like they wanted their story told," she told me last week as the museum staff was gearing up for the annual Battle of Hampton Roads weekend.
Telegraphy, which used Samuel Morse's code of dots and dashes to represent different letters, had come into use in the 1830s. (For instance, the distress signal SOS is three dots, three dashes, three dots.)
Telegraphy had largely been adopted by railroads by the time of the Civil War, and the first wartime operators were recruited from those ranks.
Both Union and Confederate forces used the system, and telegraph lines were stretched over battlefields with the help of mules.
The Union's system was especially elaborate. A cable had been laid from Fort Monroe to the Eastern Shore, and from there to Delaware, where it was relayed to the War Department.
Each side cut the other's lines and frequently tapped into them to learn secrets. A gifted telegrapher could "read" an enemy's message by placing the copper wire in his mouth and feeling the pulses. Ciphering came into widespread use.
The good telegraphers were fast and translated dots and dashes as if reading sign language.
John O'Brien was in awe of the technology from an early age.
"It seemed a wonderful and fascinating mystery," he related.
He could send and receive code by the age of 10, thanks to his brother, who "taught me style of touch and accent as a great master teaches a loved pupil to make the piano talk. ' Tis a great language is the Morse, and I had a good teacher; the best in the world, I think."
And so John joined Richard as one of the "immortals."
Paul Clancy, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.paulclancystories.com
Paul Clancy, a former staff writer for The Pilot, is the author of "Ironclad: The Epic Battle, Calamitous Loss, and Historic Recovery of the USS Monitor," "Historic Hampton Roads: Where America Began" and "Hampton Roads Chronicles: History From the Birthplace of America." history blog