Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Meet the Generals: Ely S. Parker, Engineer of Surrender

For those thinking I was going to write on US Grant right off the top, you are mistaken.  The next general I will be talking about is General Ely Parker.  Unlike John Rawlins, Parker was not born in Galena, Parker was born on a Native American Reservation in New York.   His story is unlike any  who reached the rank of general in the Civil War.

Parker was born in 1828 into a prominent Seneca family.  Parker worked in a law firm, but due to his Seneca heritage, he was unable to take the bar exam.  Native Americans were not citizens until 1924.  Parker began his career in public service by working as an interpreter and diplomat to the Seneca chiefs in their negotiations about land and treaty rights, in 1852 Parker was made sachem (chief) of the Seneca.

His story in Galena, though, does not begin until 1855.  He was hired that year to be the supervisor of government projects in Galena, which included the building of the Customs House.

Above is the Old Post Office (Customs House) built by Ely Parker and his staff.  This post office is the second oldest continously operating post office in the United States

The two men became friends and during the war Grant made a position on his staff for the able Parker.
He then sought to join the Union Army as an engineer, but was told by Secretary of War Simon Cameron that as an Indian, he could not join. Parker contacted his colleague and friend Ulysses S. Grant, who intervened. His forces suffered from a shortage of engineers, and Parker was commissioned a captain in May, 1863 and ordered to report to Brig. Gen. John Eugene Smith, also from Galena. General Smith appointed Parker as the chief engineer of his 7th Division during the siege of Vicksburg. Smith said Parker was a "good engineer".

When Ulysses S. Grant became commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi, Parker became his adjutant during the Chattanooga Campaign. He was subsequently transferred with Grant as the adjutant of the U.S. Army headquarters and served Grant through the Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg. At Petersburg, Parker was appointed as the military secretary to Grant, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He wrote much of Grant's correspondence.
At the time of the surrender Parker was a lieutenant colonel, but received the rank of brevet brigadier general after the Civil War.

Lieutenant Colonel Ely Parker made the formal ink copy of General Grant’s letter that spelled out the terms of surrender. “Having finished it, I brought it to General Grant, who signed it, sealed it and then handed it to General Lee” - Lt. Colonel Ely Parker.
At the surrender meeting, seeing that Parker was an American Indian, General Lee remarked to Parker, “I am glad to see one real American here.” Parker later stated, “I shook his hand and said, 'We are all Americans'.”

Among members of Grant’s staff Parker was known for his fine handwriting, his knowledge of the law, his sense of humor, and as a good fellow to have around in a fight. Parker once described himself as “a savage Jack Falstaff of 200 weight.”

Following the War, Grant appointed Parker as Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1869 to 1871. He was the first Native American to hold the office. Parker became the chief architect of President Grant's Peace Policy in relation to the Native Americans in the West. Under his leadership, the number of military actions against Indians were reduced in the west.
After leaving government service, Parker invested in the stock market. He eventually lost the fortune he had accumulated, after the collapse of 1873. Parker died in poverty on August 31, 1895 in Fairfield, Ct.
There will be more stories on Parker at a later date, this is a brief overview of his life.

Ely Parker (right) and General Grant (left) during the war.

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