Ely S. Parker was a lieutenant colonel during the American Civil War, and unless you’re a student of the time period, it is unlikely that you’ve heard of him. He is a very interesting person in American history for many reasons. One of the biggest reasons he stands out in the Civil War time period, is that he was a Native American. Native Americans weren’t commonly given high commands during the war, though they did fight within their tribes on both sides of the war.
Parker served as an adjutant to Ulysses S. Grant, and would later be appointed as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He was the first Native American to hold that post.
Parker was born a Hasanoanda (later Donehogawa) Indian in Indian Falls, New York. He served from 1863-1869 in the United States Army before moving to government service.
His career in the Army almost didn’t get started at all, as his first two attempts to join the war effort were denied. First he wanted to gather a regiment of Iroquois together to fight for the North, but the Governor of New York turned him down. His second effort was to join the Union Army as an engineer, but then Secretary of War Simon Cameron turned him down because he was “an Indian.” Even though Native Americans were part of the war effort, discrimination was still a very real thing, even for the north.
He was finally commissioned after contacting Ulysses S. Grant, who was a friend of his, personally. Grant had been suffering a lack of good engineers, so he allowed Parker to join in, and ordered him to join the 7th Division at the siege of Vicksburg.
Later in the war, he would be appointed adjutant, and would also be appointed Military Secretary after the Battle of Petersburg. He wrote the majority of the Confederate’s surrender terms, as well as most of Grant’s correspondence in the last years of the war.
Perhaps the thing Ely S. Parker is best known for, however, is his final interaction with General Robert E. Lee during the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865.
There is no denying that Ely S. Parker was a patriot. Despite the decades of oppression put upon Native Americans, he was one of many that fought for the United States during the bloodiest war in American history.
His positions after the war were also very important. As the first Commissioner of Indian Affairs who also happened to be a Native American, he was instrumental in his efforts to promote peace between the United States government and the tribes of Native Americans in the western states.
It was during the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House that Parker made one of the most moving statements of the war. After the surrender, Robert E. Lee approached Parker and shook his hand. He then said:
“I’m glad to see one real American here.”
Parker replied, “We are all Americans.”
Even during a time of agonizing strife, and five years of death and destruction, humanity shined through.
Native Americans played a huge role in the Civil War on both sides. On the Confederate side, many tribes joined the fighting, hoping to get away from the usually oppressive nature of the United States Federal Government. Their hopes that should the South win, there would be more freedom on their own lands for Indians. The Confederate Government even negotiated treaties with certain tribes in hopes that they could completely fulfill them after the war.
The Union also had several tribes taking part in the fighting. Despite opposition from some high within the government, there was support within the Union Army for Native American fighters, and many individual Native Americans were able to join the Union Army.
Ely S. Parker represents an ideal cooperation between the US Government and Native Americans that has most often been lacking in American history. His touching send off with General Lee is but one contribution Parker made to the U.S. in hopes of a more equitable relationship.