How an American Indian Became a Union General in the Civil War

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Ely Parker, after the Civil War. (National Archives)

For much of the early history of the United States, American Indians weren't generally well-regarded or well-treated, and Ely Parker experienced the same treatment for much of his life.

But Parker had friends in high places who didn't care if he was native or not; they knew he was a smart, capable man, and nothing else mattered after that. Opportunity ensured he had a place in Civil War history, but his ability sent him to the highest ranks of the Union Army.

Parker was born Hasanoanda, a member of the Tonawanda Seneca tribe in Upstate New York. The tribe is one of the six original tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy. His father was a leader of the tribe and had fought for the United States against the British during the War of 1812.

With this history, young Ely learned his native language but also could speak English. As an adult, he set out to become a lawyer but was blocked from taking the New York State bar exam because of his native ancestry. As a member of the Seneca, he was not legally a U.S. citizen.

Parker opted to become an engineer instead, studying at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Once he graduated, he began working on prestigious projects like the Erie Canal, which connected the Atlantic Ocean in New York City with the Great Lakes. This work led to more government projects, including one in Illinois, where he befriended one Ulysses S. Grant.

When the Civil War started in 1861, Parker, from a family that was fiercely loyal to the United States, wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and raise a regiment of Iroquois volunteers to fight for the Union cause. New York's governor turned him down.

Unable to lead Iroquois men into battle, Parker decided he would enlist in the Union Army instead. He wanted to offer his considerable engineering skills to the Union Army on the battlefield, but was turned down once again. This time, it was Secretary of War Simon Cameron who rejected Parker.

Determined to do his part, Parker called on his old friend, then-Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, to help him get in. Grant knew the Union was short of engineers and helped Parker get into the Union uniform.

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and staff after the Battle of Cold Harbor, Virginia in 1864. Ely Parker sits at the far right. (Buffalo History Museum)

By 1863, Parker was chief engineer of the Union Army's 7th Division during the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi. His friend, Maj. Gen. Grant by that time, was in overall command of the siege. Parker's work at Vicksburg prompted Grant to appoint Parker his adjutant for the coming Chattanooga Campaign.

Parker served as adjutant to Gen. Grant for the rest of the war, as adjutant for the 1864 Overland Campaign, then as military secretary to the general as the Union Army laid siege to Petersburg, Virginia. He also was promoted by then to lieutenant colonel.

Finally, it was Parker, the American Indian who could not enlist as a private, who had risen so far as to draft the final documents for Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, in April 1865. The draft that exists today is in Parker's handwriting.

An artist's depiction of the surrender at Appomattox Court House in 1865. Parker is seated to the far right. (Department of Defense)

For his work during the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, Parker was promoted to the brevet rank of brigadier general, the highest-ranking American Indian in the Union Army. After the war, he stayed on as Grant's secretary, and when Grant was elected president of the United States, he appointed Parker to serve as commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first native person to hold the position.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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Military History Civil War