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Diaries offer glimpse into history

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POSTED: May 20, 2013 3:30 p.m.

Editor note: This is the second of a three-part series. It is not running three consecutive weeks but over a four-week period.

Thirty notebooks in pristine condition lay before me on the bed in Los Angeles after my husband surprised me with the diaries of his great-great-grandfather, Charlie Tinker, a White House telegrapher who had been friends with President Abraham Lincoln.
Gingerly, I picked up the wonderments of history and found them to be in exceptional condition as though they were only a few decades old, not 150 years old.
In precise handwritten script, each notebook was numbered and dated, such as: No. 18, Feb. 15, 1865 to May 19, 1865.
“What a treasure,” I marveled quietly. I soon learned from reading the diaries that Charlie was a typical Tinker. At least typical of the one to whom I am married. He meticulously recorded each day in a clear, perfect script, sticking mostly to facts and steering away from opinion or emotional evaluation. And just like my Tinker, Charlie proved to be well-organized, even compulsive. Not only had he been mindful enough to record some of the most important days in our nation’s history, he made copies. His original diaries are written with quill and ink. Later, he must have thought of the significance these would be to history so he penciled an entire duplicate set.
“Tink, if these were in a library, we would have to wear white gloves to touch them,” I remarked, telling the story of how I once had the privilege of a private showing at the University of Georgia library of Margaret Mitchell’s first book, written when she was 11. I had been allowed to hold it and read about a little girl named Margaret, who had helped to fight off Indians, but I had to wear white gloves.
I picked up a diary and began to read randomly. I envisioned Charlie recounting to me a telegraph from General Sherman that day.
“He was close to ... ” Tink paused and pointed. “Can you make out the name of this town?”
I gasped. “Milledgeville! My beloved Milledgeville! Home of Flannery O’Conner. And my column runs there. Oh, that Sherman!” I was agitated, mad all over again about that 60-mile swath he cut from Atlanta to Savannah. After I calmed down, I began to read again. It was March 6, 1865.
“Lizzie and I attended the inauguration ball in the patent office,” he penned. “The ballroom was so crowded that it was almost impossible to dance.” He described the room and who was seated with the Lincolns on the raised platform. “During the evening, the president recognized me in the crowd and sent Robert (Lincoln’s son) to ask me if I had any news from (General) Sheridan, or from any other source since he was in the (telegraph) office that afternoon. I accompanied Robert back to the platform and gave the president the information, for which he thanked me and, learning that Mrs. Tinker was present, said he would be pleased to speak to her.”
President Lincoln visited the telegraph office several times a day, eager to know the latest news from dispatches. He seemed to consider himself more of the staff than their commander-in-chief. Often he would wander in, stroll over to the basket filled with dispatches and read through them, disappointed if nothing new had been wired since last he was there.
April 9: “General Grant telegraphs this evening that General Lee has surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to him accepting terms proposed by Grant. Glorious news and everybody happy.”
April 11: Lincoln came into the office and told a story. “To illustrate the point, he gathered his coattails under his arms and, taking long strides, passed out of the office laughing loudly and leaving me convulsed by his story and ludicrous performance.”
Imagine Lincoln being high-spirited. But the war was over. His burden had been lifted.
Then came Charlie’s entry on April 15. That is another story for another day.

Rich is the best-selling author of “What Southern Women Know About Faith.”

 

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