This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.
Robert E. Lee wore a puzzled look as he examined the officer’s dark features, then recovered enough to extend his hand and remark, “I am glad to see one real American here.” On that April 9 afternoon, 150 years ago, at the McLean House in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, General Lee was greeting Ely S. Parker, a Seneca Indian who was serving as General Ulysses S. Grant’s secretary. Parker replied with dignity, “We are all Americans.”
After Lee and Grant’s preliminary and unusually pleasant conversation, Grant reached out to write out the surrender terms for the Army of Northern Virginia. This would effectively end four years of America’s bloodiest war. Parker provided the writing materials, a “manifold book” with its new-fangled yellow sheets of copy paper; one can see one of the three copies here bearing Grant’s writing and Parker’s emendations.
Terms of Surrender, April 9, 1865, manifold impression in the hand of Ulysses S. Grant, with revisions by Ely S. Parker; BV Grant, U.S.
Lee studied the document, noting that the generous terms allowing the Confederate officers to keep their horses and side arms would “do much toward conciliating our people.” When time came for a clean copy to be made, Grant’s adjutant, Colonel Theodore S. Bowers, a one-time journalist, was too shaken by the magnitude of the occasion to complete the assignment. The task thus fell to Parker, who, with his legal training, had the composure to write out the terms on letterhead paper for Lee’s official approval. Parker kept one of the earlier yellow manifold copies for himself. He held proudly onto it all his life, placed it in a wood frame case, and had Ulysses Grant attest to its authenticity—in the attached text at the top margin—15 years later. The framed document came later to the New-York Historical Society through the donation of the New York Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States.
The copy of the surrender letter was not, however, Ely Parker’s most prized possession. That honor belonged to the seven-inch silver medal presented by President George Washington to his Great, Great Uncle Red Jacket in 1792. Parker both inherited the medal and rescued it from sale to a museum, and thence wore it frequently. Born in 1828 and named Ha-sa-no-an-da, Ely Samuel Parker was the son of a War of 1812 veteran who had fought for the United States. Raised on the Tonawanda Reservation near Buffalo, Parker impressed others with his curiosity, intellect, and facility with languages. He pronounced his “white” name “Eelee” and took on the additional name Do-ne-ho-ga-wa on becoming a sachem in 1851. By then Parker had served as a teenaged interpreter and diplomat for his tribe in Albany and Washington, met with Presidents and statesmen, studied law and engineering. Not admitted to the New York bar because, as a tribal member, he was not a U.S. citizen, he pursued his career in civil engineering. Work as a U.S. government engineer took Parker to Galena, Illinois, where, in 1860, he met Ulysses Grant, a Mexican War veteran with a West Point education struggling to make do as a civilian.
Despite his being an active Freemason, engineer, and militia officer, prejudice at every level stymied Parker’s application for an officer’s commission in the Civil War. In Parker’s recollection, Lincoln’s Secretary of State William H. Seward, a fellow New Yorker, told him that “the struggle in which I wished to assist, was an affair between white men and one in which the Indian was not called on to act. The fight must be made and settled by the white men alone.” It was the intervention, two years later, of Grant and other Galena officers that sent him to Vicksburg, Mississippi, days after its successful capture, to join Grant’s staff; a year later he was formally appointed as Grant’s secretary with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
After remaining at Grant’s side throughout the drama at Appomattox in 1865, Parker accompanied the General with his staff to Washington.
According to Parker’s account in news reports, he arrived in time to meet with President Lincoln on Good Friday, April 14, show him the Red Jacket medal, and demonstrate all that it meant to him. Abraham Lincoln continued with his plans to end that day at Ford’s Theater.
Parker was a natural choice as President Grant’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs and was, in fact, the first Native American to hold that position. In that tenure, Parker was not reluctant to use the Army, but he and Grant attempted to avoid the major Indian Wars that characterized the period. A Congressional investigation, from which he was cleared of charges of fraud, ended Parker’s service in 1871.
After leaving government, and now married to a young Washington socialite, Parker made a Gilded-Age fortune, but lost much of it just as quickly in the Panic of 1873. Thereafter, Parker would touch on history in still yet another way, in his last career as the head requisitions clerk for the New York City Police Department, a position held for nearly 20 years until his death in 1895. There at headquarters at 300 Mulberry Street, the “noble old fellow” was a favorite of a reporter on the police beat, Jacob Riis.
Later made famous for his exposure of conditions in the nearby tenements, Riis would recall that he was drawn to Parker’s encyclopedic knowledge and by Riis’s own childhood interest in James Fenimore Cooper’s tales of American Indians in his native Denmark: “They had something to do with my coming here, and at last I had for a friend one of their kin. I think he felt the bond of sympathy between us and prized it, for he showed me in many silent ways that he was fond of me. There was about him an infinite pathos, penned up there in his old age among the tenements of Mulberry Street on the pay of a second-rate clerk, that never ceased to appeal to me.”
Parker’s post-war recollections of Appomattox have helped in setting the countless depictions of the iconic scene in the McLean parlor. Here, in interview notes taken by artist James E. Kelly, Parker describes Grant’s informal dress and knee-high boots. With a laugh, he adds, “If you want to show General Grant as he really was—he had a cigar in his mouth.”