Secretary of State William H. Seward thought the Union Army was no place for an Indian.
In September 1861, Ely S. Parker, a Tonawanda Seneca from western New York and a close friend of the Union general Ulysses S. Grant, approached Seward requesting a commission. He refused, telling Parker that the war was “an affair between white men.”
“Go home, cultivate your farm,” Seward instructed. “We will settle our own troubles among ourselves,” he explained, “without any Indian aid.”
This was the third time Parker had attempted to volunteer for service and the third time he had been rebuffed. Years later, perhaps still angry from the numerous rejections, Parker recalled, “I did go home and planted crops and myself on the farm.”
Not only were Seward’s words insulting, but in retrospect they were also myopic. Parker later came to perform a key role in the Civil War. He ably served as General Grant’s aide and confidant, and on one occasion, saved the general from capture — perhaps even death.
Most memorably, Parker played a vital part in the final days of the war; it was by his own hand that the terms of surrender were inked at Appomattox Court House.
Despite these examples, Parker, like most Indians, has been almost entirely excised from our commemoration of the Civil War. If native contributions are remembered at all, they appear quietly on the margins. But they shouldn’t.
Parker’s long and often colorful relationship with the Union Army’s most revered general began before the war. The Seneca leader worked for the Treasury Department as a civil engineer in the 1850s; among other projects, he built a customs house and post office in Galena, Ill. There he befriended Grant, at the time a down-on-his-luck former Army officer.
In the years after the Civil War, Parker often told a story about an early encounter with the future war hero and president. One evening, as he walked past a barroom, he heard raucous noises. Upon further inspection, he soon realized that one of the voices belonged to his new friend, who was engaged in a fight against practically everyone else in the bar. Parker rushed to his aid and, in a scene reminiscent of later western films, the two men, pressed back-to-back, fought their way out of the establishment.
Eventually, Parker sidestepped the intractable Seward, and received a commission in the Union Army through another Galena friend, John E. Smith, who was a brigadier general and division commander in Grant’s army. Grant endorsed the commission request himself, noting, “I am personally acquainted with Mr. Parker and I think [he is] eminently qualified for the position.” Shortly after the fall of Vicksburg on July 7, 1863, Parker joined Smith’s Seventh Division, 17th Army Corps at the rank of captain, serving as assistant adjutant general of volunteers. Smith, concerned that his division lacked an engineer, soon assigned Parker to that duty as well. Parker was no doubt enthusiastic to serve in a capacity that so fully matched his training and previous experience, but he saw little action in the weeks after Vicksburg. Finally in September, he was transferred directly to Grant’s personal staff.
The “Indian at headquarters,” as many common soldiers referred to Parker, drew quite a bit of attention and became a noticeable fixture within Grant’s inner circle. In his mid-30s during the war, Parker stood 5 feet, 8 inches tall, and weighed about 200 pounds. Despite his robust frame, those who knew him well commented on his quiet and calm demeanor. Some remarked about his uncanny memory and knowledge by calling him “200 pounds of encyclopedia,” but Parker self-deprecatingly referred to himself as “a savage Jack Falstaff.” Although he served primarily as an “indoor man,” drafting orders and handling correspondence for Grant, he saw action at Chattanooga and later during the Wilderness Campaign in Virginia.
On May 7, 1864 — the night after the Battle of the Wilderness — Parker accompanied Grant and Gen. George Meade, along with a few others, in moving the general’s headquarters. As they traversed the roads and paths around the battleground, they found themselves surrounded by smoldering thickets and congested main paths. They took a side route to avoid these obstacles. Unbeknown to Cyrus Comstock, the aide-de-camp who was leading the group, they had stumbled dangerously close to the Confederate line.
Parker, riding in the rear, realized the perilous predicament and warned Grant and the others ahead. Before long, he took the lead, and, as he later wrote, “put the spurs to my black horse and galloped off in another direction and they full tilt after me.”
Parker spoke with a captured Confederate captain shortly after the ensuing Battle of Spotsylvania. The man had watched the Union officers gallop a mere 200 yards from his post and admitted that he and his compatriots were planning to ambush Grant and the rest of the men “in the next five minutes,” had Parker not led them away.
At the end of the war, Parker again demonstrated his poise and composure, this time in the front parlor of Wilmer McLean’s home at Appomattox Court House. After Grant had drafted the terms of surrender, he “called Colonel Parker to his side and looked it over with him.” Shortly thereafter, Grant asked his senior adjutant general, Theodore S. Bowers, to pen the final terms in ink. Bowers was too nervous to write, destroying several sheets of paper in the process. Grant then turned to Parker, who quietly transcribed the final copy, thus being the last person to put ink to paper before the two famous generals scrawled their names.
Native communities and the Civil War share a curious history. Native Americans largely disappear from our recollection of those events, save for the marginal locations where they act as sidebars to the events happening on major battlefields and campaigns. Or, when native people do appear in the geographic center of the war, they are depicted as people thrust into daunting and precarious positions, such as those of Southern Indian nations — the Choctaw especially.
All of these stories are important, but others are, too. Although Parker’s wartime career may have been exceptional, owing in part to antebellum friendships with men who found themselves in positions of power during the war, Native American contributions to the war should be highlighted more often and in the same breath as those of men like Grant, Meade and countless others. Indigenous men from across the United States joined both Union and Confederate armies and participated in ways far more meaningful than most Americans have remembered. During these sesquicentennial years of Civil War commemoration, it is important to remind ourselves that it was more than an “affair between white men.”
Sources: Ely S. Parker, “Writings of General Parker,” Proceedings of the Buffalo Historical Society 8 (1905); Horace Porter, “Campaigning with Grant”; Sylvanus Cadwalader, “Three Years with Grant”; Arthur Parker, “The Life of General Ely S. Parker”; William Armstrong, “Warrior in Two Camps: Ely S. Parker, Union General and Seneca Chief”; Laurence Hauptman, “The Iroquois in the Civil War: From Battlefield to Reservation.” The author would like to thank James J. Buss, Boyd Cothran, Betsy Hall and Steve Hochstadt for sharp and insightful suggestions.