Lincoln’s Telegrapher

Sue Ramsey was not surprised she had received a Google alert about Green-Wood Cemetery. After all, though Sue lives all the way across the country in California, she has been a huge fan of Green-Wood for years. It is at Green-Wood that the passion of her life, Civil War Captain Samuel Sims, lies. Sue is an avid and unrelenting researcher, and has been working for Green-Wood’s Civil War Project for years now, finding out more and more about its veterans. So, Sue was not surprised when she got a Google alert that there was a story out there in cyberspace about one of Green-Wood’s Civil War veterans. But she was surprised when she read the details.

The subject of her Google alert was two series of columns about Charles Tinker. He had played a rather unusual role in the Civil War. He was not a private or even a general. Rather, he was a telegrapher. If you saw “Lincoln,” you may remember President Abraham Lincoln, in the telegraph office next to the White House, waiting for hours on end for the latest battle news–ever hoping for a victory, even receiving news of defeat. There were 4 men who were trained to receive and transmit military telegraphs, and Charlie was one of them.

Charles A. Tinker, one of Lincoln's small circle of telegraphers.

Sue, ever the researcher, checked our Civil War Project biographies –and there was indeed one for Charlie Tinker.

But it was rather cursory–missing the historical importance of this man entirely:

TINKER, CHARLES A. (1838-1917). Communications worker. Born in Chelsea, Vermont, Tinker assisted the war effort as a worker for the United States Military Telegraph. He died in Winnipeg, Canada, but last resided in Stamford, Connecticut. Section 165, lot 27130.

The two three-part series on Charlie that Sue had been alerted to were by Ronda Rich, a columnist syndicated to 50 newspapers throughout the southeast and a best-selling author. She is a former award-winning sports writer and is the author of What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should Know), There’s a Better Day A-Comin and other books. She is also a gifted speaker who has been a guest on many leading television shows.

Ronda Rich, syndicated columnist and best-selling author.

It turns out that Ronda is married to John Tinker (“Tink”), who is a great great grandson of telegrapher Charles Tinker. The Tinkers are quite a remarkable family. John is an Emmy award-winning television producer and writer whose credits include “St.Elsewhere,” “Judging Amy,” “The Practice,” and “Chicago Hope.” John’s father is Grant Tinker, who for years was married to Mary Tyler Moore. Grant was the producer of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and president of NBC. Who can forget Mary’s boss, Lou Grant–played by Ed Asner? Mr. Grant got his name from Grant Tinker, who in turn got his name from his grandfather Grant Tinker, Charlie’s son who was named in honor of General U.S. Grant, one of Charlie’s Civil War heroes.

Here are two of Ronda’s recent columns about her trip to visit Charlie Tinker’s Green-Wood grave:

“Where Charlie Tinker Lies Buried”


Published Friday, July 5, 2013

It was during mid-flight, perhaps somewhere over Virginia, that a thought hit me, and I turned suddenly, excitedly toward Tink.

“Let’s visit Charlie Tinker’s grave while we are in New York!” I exclaimed. The notion sank into his brain and washed slowly across his face. Silently, he nodded in agreement.

For all of the hundreds of columns I have written, nothing has struck the fancy of readers as did the three-part series I wrote from the diaries of my husband’s great-great-grandfather, Charlie Tinker, who worked closely with Abraham Lincoln in the White House. I was surprised, even stunned by the reaction of readers who wanted to know more about this man who had touched the black cloth of history and had been diligent enough to record what he saw and heard. As one of four telegram dispatchers in the War Department, Charlie had a front row seat to a war that devastated our nation and a shoulder-to-shoulder friendship with the president. In our safe deposit box are two handwritten notes from Lincoln to Charlie proving the closeness of their friendship.

So it was that on a cold, rainy winter’s day, we took a cab from Manhattan to the historic cemetery where Charlie is interred. The cab driver dropped us at the grand stone entrance, a place that looks like it would sit most comfortably among England’s ancient buildings. As the cab drove out of sight and the rain gained intensity, the guard searched the directory of Green-Wood Cemetery, a place where famous men like Samuel Morse (ironically, the inventor of the telegraph that gave Charlie a place in history) are buried.

“Follow this road,” the guard began, proceeding to give us the names of streets we were to follow. “It’s a 45-minute walk.”

Thunderstruck and chilled, Tink and I gaped at each other. Forty-five minutes? There was no choice, though. Like the children of Israel, we had come too far to turn back now. I pulled my hat closer to my ears, Tink drew his jacket hood over his head and, together, we carried forth. Had anyone ever told me that I would walk in the cold winter’s rain for one and a half hours to visit a dead Yankee, I would have retorted, “Right. And Sherman never owned a pack of matches either.”

But there I was. Journeying to see the final resting place of a man whose 30 diaries have been entrusted to our care. The graveyard was filled with monuments of all types from simple markers to high rising statues and grand, enormous tributes to those who there lie buried.

“What kind of grave stone do you think Charlie will have?” Tink asked.

Charlie, as I know him from his own words was man of class, dignity and humility so it made it easier to venture a guess. “He’ll have a towering monument. One that will honor his family but not seem arrogant or overdone.”

Lo and behold, that’s exactly what we found. In the center of the section of Green-Wood where Charlie and his immediate family lie was a 12-foot-high monument sitting beneath the shadow of towering oaks, some with limbs broken and scattered on his grave. As I dragged them away, I thought of my own great-great-grandfather buried in the cemetery of a tiny church that is within hollering distance of where the Appalachian Trail begins in North Georgia. His plain stone is small and leans precariously to the side. It is smudged in black from 150 years of weather and now is hard to read. I am surprised my family was able to afford that much.

It is an interesting thing about a man’s gravestone because it can tell so much yet leave so much more untold. What we read on his monument that day would drive us back to his diaries to learn more.

And, oh what we discovered.

And here is the column that followed, discussing what Ronda and John learned at the Tinker Family Lot at Green-Wood:

Upon discovering Charles Almerin Tinker’s leaf-strewn grave in Green-Wood cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y., we — one of us more than the other — began to study the names and dates engraved on the towering monument.

Three of his children, all born after the Civil War ended, were named in honor of men that Charlie had apparently held in great esteem — Lincoln, Stanton (secretary of war, Charlie’s immediate boss) and Grant. That answered a question I had been pondering for some time. My father-in-law carries the family name of Grant.

“Aha!” I exclaimed. “Your father’s name does come from Gen. Grant! I thought it might.”

I stopped and smiled. “I still love him, though,” I said matter-of-factly. “It does not sway my adoration of him.”

In an ironic twist of history, I quickly noted that my father-in-law is the link that unites the Civil War general with one of television’s most iconic characters — Lou Grant. My father-in-law was named after Gen. Grant while Mr. Grant was named after my father-in-law. It should be a Jeopardy question. The things you can learn in a graveyard.

I studied the names of the seven people buried in that plot. Charlie outlived two wives and four children with only Tink’s great-grandfather, Arthur Lincoln, living longer than Charlie. Two sons and one daughter had not lived to the age of 3. I cannot think of anything much sadder than outliving all those you love, not just for the pain it engraves on your heart but also for the suffocating loneliness it must impart.

“What a sad life,” I commented. “Look! One of his children — Stanton — died on Charlie’s birthday, Jan. 8. How terrible.”

When we returned home, we brought out the diaries and began to read, beginning on Jan. 5, 1875. “Little Stanton taken with diarrhea and vomiting. Called Dr. Clark. Says he has cholera infantum. Grant ailing also but not serious.”

Charlie, usually one to chronicle his days precisely, continued to record nightly, but his words were brief. Heavy-hearted, he feared his baby was dying. He was a praying man. We know that about Charlie Tinker so, without question, he prayed. But he was also pragmatic, and I suspect that his faith, though diligently practiced, could not outweigh a doctor’s knowledge.

On Jan. 6, Charlie wrote, “Stanton continued about the same — up and down all day and very fretful but eats a little and tries to play.” I wonder if there was hope on that day for a child who could eat a bit and play. If so, he never revealed it and quietly held the hope.

The child grew sicker. Mama would say from time to time, “I’m so sick that I’d have to get better to die” for it’s true, death often follows a rally. “Stanton worse. Remained in bed all day. Called in doctor again this evening and watched with him through the night. Very restless till 11 a.m. Quieted down.”

There was no celebration on Jan. 8. “My 37th birthday but spent in sadness — a weary watch over our little darling whose disease changed for the worst around 11 a.m. and he continued to fail, passing away quietly at 8:30 p.m.”

My heart sniffled. I’m surprised that Charlie wrote the next day, but he was a man who wanted his history recorded. “Very cold. Spent the day preparing for the funeral set for 2 p.m. tomorrow at the house. Many friends called to express sympathy.”

Jan. 10: “Clear and very cold. A day of sadness. We laid the remains of little Stanton away in the vault at the cemetery to await our final selection of a resting place. Funeral largely attended. Rev. Johnson officiated.”

He was no stranger to death. Ten years earlier, Charlie watched an execution that would haunt him until his final days.

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In the meantime, Sue Ramsey, ever the researcher, decided to see what else she might find about Charlie. And she struck gold! The finds, from Ronda’s 6-part series, and from Internet searches,  just kept coming and coming.

And here’s our new and very much expanded biography, based on Sue’s research and as written by Susan Rudin, Green-Wood’s wonderful Civil War Project writer and editor. It gives a much fuller picture of the life of this remarkable man:

TINKER, CHARLES ALMERIN (1838-1917). Telegrapher in the War Department. Born in Chelsea, Vermont, by 1850 he was living in Michigan with his family. Tinker assisted the war effort as a decipher operator for the United States Military Telegraph. His obituary in the New York Evening Post reports that he first was an operator for the Vermont & Boston Telegraph Company in 1855 then, after learning Morse code, became manager of the Illinois & Mississippi Company’s office in Pekin, Illinois, before taking a position with the Chicago & Rock Island Railroad in 1857. Ronda Rich, a writer whose family traces its roots back ten generations in Georgia and whose husband, John Tinker, is a great-great grandson of Charles Tinker, wrote on her website about the close connection between Tinker and President Abraham Lincoln. According to Rich, the two met before the Civil War in Illinois when both men lived there and became acquainted through Tinker’s expertise in telegraphing, a modern technology at that time. This information is confirmed by Tinker’s obituaries and other documents. Tinker remembered later that Lincoln, one of the lawyers who came to the Tazewell House, a hotel where the telegraph center was located, said to him, “Mr. Operator, I have always had a curiosity to see the telegraph work. You don’t seem to be very busy. I wonder if you would explain it to me.” Tinker’s obituary in the Evening Post reports that he declined a commission as a lieutenant colonel because he thought that he could better serve the country as a telegrapher. First assigned to the field, he was at Poolesville, Maryland, then served under General James Wadsworth at Upton Hill, and with Generals George B. McClellan and Samuel P. Hentzleman before taking sick and returning to Vermont. He subsequently went to Washington, D.C., where he worked closely with President Abraham Lincoln as one of four telegraph cipher operators (although the Brooklyn Daily Eagle says three) in the War Department. The telegraphers were the only ones who knew the secret code by which the movements of the troops were ordered. They also sent out and received all official information about the progress of the War. Tinker recalled that he saw President Lincoln about one thousand times when the President made daily or nightly visits to the telegraph room. It was Tinker who delivered the news to the President that he had been nominated by the Republican Party for re-election. Rich’s husband has inherited two-handwritten notes from the President to Charles A. Tinker that are evidence of their friendship; he is also the care-taker of 30 of Tinker’s diaries. Ms. Rich wrote about the journals in “Dixie Divas.” The diaries, written meticulously in quill and ink, were numbered and dated and then duplicated in pencil. Some entries from 1865:

March 6: “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.”

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 had come to 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.”

On April 16, 1865, Tinker was ill with intermittent fever and was confined to bed when he heard about the assassination of the President and the rumored assassination of Secretary of State William Henry Seward, who was wounded at Ford Theater, via word of mouth. He rushed to his office where he learned the truth and wrote:

“Our office feels most mournful,” he wrote of that day. “We had learned to look upon him in his daily visits as a companion while we venerated him for his goodness as a father. We had no heart for work, bitter tears flooding every eye and grief choking every utterance.”

Subsequently, as per an article in the New-York Daily Reformer (Watertown, New York) on April 4, 1868, Tinker was called to testify at the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson. In his testimony, he related that he telegraphed a copy of Johnson’s speech on August 18 and that transcript was relayed to offices throughout the country by the Associated Press. After leaving the Military Telegraph Corps in 1869, he was manager of the Western Union office in Washington, D.C., then became manager of the telegraph lines of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The census of 1870 notes that he had a personal estate of $3,000. An article in the New York Herald on April 30, 1879, indicates that he was one of three stakeholders in the Union Telegraph Company with a capital investment of 10 million (Jay Gould held half of the shares). Tinker lived in Baltimore, Maryland, as per the census of 1880. He moved to Brooklyn in 1881 where he was general superintendent of the Western Union Telegraph Service. The census of 1890 lists him as a telegrapher living in Brooklyn. On July 13, 1891, an article in the New York Evening Post, “Did Lincoln Want Hamlin,” focused on an in-depth interview with Albert E. H. Johnson, a patent attorney who had been a confidential clerk to Edwin M. Stanton, President Lincoln’s Secretary of War. In that interview, Tinker is mentioned in reference to a letter that he wrote to the Sun a few days earlier remembering when Lincoln read the telegraph announcing that Andrew Johnson, instead of Hannibal Hamlin, was the vice presidential candidate in 1864. The crux of the discussion with Albert Johnson centered on Lincoln’s comment about Andrew Johnson, “Well, I thought he might be the man. Perhaps he is the best man, but-” In 1896, Tinker was elected vice president of the American District Telegraph Company. He retired in 1902. As per his passport application of 1903, he was 5’7½” tall with gray eyes, gray and auburn hair, light complexion, high forehead, not prominent nose, full and ruddy face with short-cut side whiskers, and square chin. On February 12, 1907, he spoke at the unveiling of a portrait of Abraham Lincoln by Benjamin Eggleston at the Brooklyn Lincoln Club. His remarks were made into a souvenir book, “A Simple Tribute to the Memory of Abraham Lincoln.” In it, Tinker details his friendship with Lincoln, describing a man who was aged beyond his years and was distinguished for his homely looks, practical common sense and unwavering honesty. Tinker was convinced that Lincoln “was born to rule,” admired his appreciation of wit and humor, his tender heart and the truthfulness of his nickname “Honest Old Abe.” On January 31, 1909, an article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced that Tinker would speak about his relationship with President Lincoln at P.S. 144 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. That article said Tinker “…saw the President in his darkest hours as well as when he brought the nation successfully through its struggle…” On April 15, 1913, as per the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Tinker spoke to the Emmanuel Baptist Brotherhood at their annual dinner and reminisced about his friendship with Abraham Lincoln on the 48th anniversary of his assassination. Tinker began his recollections with their meeting in Pekin, Illinois, at the telegraph office and ended a few days before the assassination when Lincoln was in a happy frame of mind. He was also chairman of the deacons at the Washington Avenue Baptist Church and was at one time the president of the Lincoln Club in Brooklyn. Rich and her husband visited Green-Wood in a chilly winter’s rain to see Tinker’s gravesite and wrote about that experience in her July 2013 newsletter. Three of Tinker’s children, born after the Civil War, bore the names of men he admired—Arthur Lincoln, Stanton (named for Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War and Tinker’s boss), and Charles Grant. He last resided in Stamford, Connecticut, with his son, but died in Winnipeg, Canada, where his daughter lived. Section 165, lot 27130.

Ronda Rich has kindly agreed to come up to Green-Wood, with her husband John Tinker, on December 14 to speak about Charlie. We will then go out to Charlie’s grave–where his sons, named after his Civil War heroes: Lincoln, Grant, and Stanton–and other members of his family–are also interred.

One final note. I went out to Charlie’s grave this past Friday. The lot is filled with solid granite markers. Here’s what it looked like:

The Tinker Family Lot. All granite--a typical central monument with headstones arrayed around it. Note the headstone at far right: "Grant."

Over the years, some of the headstones have sunk a bit into the ground. Others have tipped a few inches this way and that. Nothing severe. Just normal settling and moving over a century of exposure to freezing and thawing. Here’s the inscription for Charlie and his wife:

Charlie and his wife are memorialized on the front of the central monument in the lot.

After I returned from visiting the Tinker Lot, I checked my e-mail and discovered that Green-Wood’s Restoration and Preservation Team was looking for a lot to work on–French students studying preservation would be making their annual pilgrimage this week to work on Green-Wood’s grounds. I had an idea! How about the Tinker lot? So, these students will be working on it, fixing it up a bit. It is the least we can do for Charlie, who served his country, and its president, so faithfully.

UPDATE, August 8: In today’s New York Times, “City Room” headlines with “New York Today: Lincoln’s Messenger.”Andy Newman reports on the work being done on Charlie’s lot at Green-Wood. Note in the first photograph below, which I took yesterday, the dark lines on the headstones for Father, Mother, and Grant. Those are soil lines–showing the depths to which the stones had sunk. The stones are being lifted, straightened, and reset; that work will continue today.

These headstones in the Tinker Lot just have been lifted and reset. Compare their heights now to how low they were to the ground in the above photograph of the lot.
Here is Charlie's headstone, dug out and ready to be lifted up and reset, using the tripod at bottom left that will be positioned over the stone.


3 thoughts on “Lincoln’s Telegrapher”

  1. Dear Ms Rich-Tinker, I found your article(s) very interesting. As with you, my husband (now deceased) had a very interesting lineage, amongst them being a direct descendent of Roger Williams of Rhode Island. More pertinent to your letters is that Herb too inherited diaries of his antecedent, Christopher Bellinger, a quartermaster soldier of the Civil War for four years. Although not distinguished societally nor militarily, he was from a patrician family and was an educated young man of the small upstate township of Laurens, NY, having grown up in the beautiful old homestead of Brookside. in this beautiful, inherited 1816 home Herb and I celebrated our honeymoon 59 years ago. The diaries are as esthetic to hold as to read; small, 3×6 black leather, slightly curved where they no doubt lay tight against his body in a rear pocket. The pages are gossamer thin, but very well preserved, rather delicious to touch. He wrote touchingly and startlingly, of the men he arranged to be fed and supplied, and the horses whose everyday nutritional needs were also his responsibility. His words are a back door into the North’s surging troops on the battlefields, carefully detailed as to the price of every piece of food, every drop of liquid, every morsel of hay. He wrote in a fine hand with beautiful penmanship, with small carefully scripted words in black ink across the pages from top to bottom. He then interestingly turned his book, and wrote at a right angle over the black writing with a red pen, from side edge to spine, then spine to side edge, thus doubling the size of his diary while maintaining its small size. He pasted in newspaper articles of the war’s advances towards the Confederates, followed by the marches of his NY regiment into those battles. Most poignantly was the article of the assassination of President Lincoln, and Bellinger’s words of mourning: “A great light went out” in part. Your writings of Tinker’s diaries, and his part in Lincoln’s life and your life draws me back to our link with the Civil War. I think you will agree that that war, of brother against brother, and in my personal case great grandfathers against one another becomes not so far away. Thank you for your time, Sincerely, Nancy Lee Getman

  2. Sure. He is in section 165, lot 27130. Pick up a free map of the cemetery, with sections marked on it, from the security guard at the entrance you come into. Section 165 is near the Fort Hamilton entrance. Go to the intersection of Vine and Fir Avenues (where sections 156 and 165 meet). Proceed down Fir Avenue towards Grape Avenue. The Tinker Lot is visible from the road, on the left, about 100 feet from the intersection of Vine and Fir. Look for the large gray granite central monument with “TINKER” across its base.


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