“I am glad to see one real American here,” General Robert E. Lee said to one of the somber men gathered in the parlor of Wilmer McLean’s home in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. The lieutenant colonel he was addressing was Ely Parker, a Seneca man on Grant’s staff. The few accounts of the Appomattox meeting that note Parker’s presence usually mention simply that his was the hand that wrote the final draft of the surrender document. But Parker’s story was bigger than that: it represented the Union’s vision for the nation.
Ely Parker was born in New York in 1828. He managed to receive an excellent education for his day, first from missionaries and then at academies. Watching the Senecas being pushed from their land prompted Parker to train as a lawyer, and he spent three years studying in a law office. But then he ran into a problem that most other rising young men would not: he could not pass the bar to practice law because of his race. Only white men who were American citizens could be admitted to the bar. As an American Indian, Parker was not a citizen. He could not practice law.
With that avenue closed, Parker turned his considerable brain to engineering, a field that the nation’s new canals and railroads had made attractive to many ambitious young men. He worked for a number of years on the Erie Canal, where he prospered. He made enough money to allow him to buy a large farm that he stocked with prime horses. He kept the farm when he moved to Virginia for a brief stint building a canal there. Then he went to work as an engineer for the Treasury Department, a position that chanced to put him in a crucial place later enabling him to change American history.
The government sent Parker west. In 1857, the Treasury Department sent him to supervise the construction of a new customhouse in Galena, Illinois. There, he met a former soldier whose career on the western frontier had stalled when boredom and longing for his beloved wife made him lean too heavily on alcohol for support. That former soldier, Ulysses S. Grant, had taken a job working as a clerk in his father’s store. The two men became friends.
The outbreak of the Civil War sent Grant back to active duty, while Parker continued to work for the Treasury Department. In 1862, he resigned from his position to return to New York and join the war effort. Seneca men were fighting as privates in the war, and when Parker asked state officials for a commission, they rebuffed him. Then he went to Washington, where he had connections, to ask another New Yorker, Secretary of State William Henry Seward, for a commission in the army’s new engineering corps. Seward, too, told him that there were no commissions available for Indians. Parker went home to his farm.
In summer 1863, official wheels had turned – although how they did so is vague – and a commission for Parker finally arrived. He was sent south to join Grant’s staff during the Vicksburg campaign. There he became invaluable. His easy command of formal English made him an ideal secretary for the well-spoken Grant, and his excellent penmanship meant that he quickly became the general’s chief scribe. But writing letters was the least of what he did for the Union. Parker’s profession was engineering, and he soon became a lead engineer for Grant’s armies. He oversaw the building of trenches, the construction of breastworks, and the siting of artillery. His abilities and his very visible position at Grant’s right hand helped lead the United States to develop a skilled engineering corps, which in turn helped it to win the war.
When Parker accompanied Grant and the rest of the general’s staff to accept Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, he represented a new nation. Like other young men of his day, he had struggled for an education and then worked his way up to prominence. He had braved death on the battlefields. More than most, he had helped to usher in a new era in which technology and innovation would change the world. And, as he stood in McLean’s parlor in 1865, it seemed that the new nation would include all men, no matter what had been the circumstances of their birth.
“I am glad to see one real American here,” General Robert E. Lee said as he shook Lt. Colonel Parker’s hand. “We are all Americans,” Parker answered.