(Editor note: This is the first of a three-part series. It is not running three consecutive weeks but over a five-week period.)
His name is Charles Almerin Tinker, and he was the great-great-grandfather of my beloved.
“Charlie Tinker,” I sometimes hear my husband say as he passes the large framed photo. “You’re spinning in your grave. Your picture is hanging in the home of a Confederate.”
The stunningly clear portrait is of four distinguished, gray whiskered men dressed in suits with vests, ties and winged-collar white shirts gathered around a heavy, round mahogany table. Three are seated and one — Charlie Tinker — is standing, his lips tight but a kindly smile illuminating his eyes. As in the tradition of the mid-1860s, his vest is decorated with the chains of a pocket watch.
If you had asked any of my mountain ancestors back then, they would have called him the “enemy,” snorting out the word righteously and haughtily in much the same way that evangelicals utter the name “Satan.” Our people — mine and Tink’s — fought on opposite sides of the bloody war that divided America with that first shot at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861.
His fought mainly against slavery, mine — free men, some destitute, some desperados — fought against excessive interference from the government, especially when it came to extreme taxation, particularly when it was applied to the whiskey they were making. They were free in body but enslaved to dry, rocky ground that refused to cough up enough food to keep them fed well and their taxes paid. Some of my people fought just for the sake of fighting, for that’s how those wily Scotch-Irish were — they hated to miss out on a good fight. And why not? They could starve in the Confederate army as well as they could starve on their farms — plus on the battlefield, the ammunition was free.
It is not family lore nor is it one bit embellished — for Tink’s people stick strictly to the facts, something that my people abhor — that Charlie Tinker and the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, were close friends. The pair had met when they both lived in Illinois and Lincoln had become fascinated by a new-fangled invention that Charlie had become an expert at — the telegraph. In today’s age of advanced technology, it is hard to imagine a time when a machine that was able to relay messages across a distance by tapping out a code was cutting-edge, a phenomenal break-through. Until then, people relied on pony express and trains for communication with a letter taking weeks or months to travel.
Tinker and Lincoln hit off, with Lincoln spending much time in the telegraph office with him. Their friendship and admiration for each other grew and, eventually, they would work together at the White House — Lincoln as president, Charlie Tinker as one of four men in the telegraph office of the War Department. It was Charlie Tinker who hand-delivered the news to Lincoln that he had been re-nominated as his party’s choice for president. Celebratory news, mostly unexpected, since the Civil War had driven down Lincoln’s popularity making it doubtful that he would have a second term.
I’m sure that they were delighted with that telegram, even uncharacteristically slapping each other on the back and smiling broadly for much of the news that Charlie delivered to the president was grim and heavy-hearted: increasing numbers of men slaughtered, battles lost to the genius of General Lee and the taunting possibility of the Royal Empire joining the Confederates in order to save England’s cotton industry.
One morning while in Los Angeles, I was having coffee in bed and checking email when Tink walked in, his arms loaded with dozens of yellowed books. He dropped them on the bed. Puzzled, I picked one up.
He tilted his head. “Charlie Tinker’s diaries.”
History buff that I am, I trembled with anticipation. Just wait until you hear some of the stories my new friend, Charlie, told me.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “There’s A Better Day A-Comin.’” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her weekly newsletter.