Called a “real American” by Robert E. Lee, Parker was a uniquely American success story.
Most anniversary commemorations of the Confederacy’s surrender 150-years ago in April, 1865, overlooked a meaningful exchange at that little courthouse in Appomattox, Va. After the proud defeated commander, Robert E. Lee, formally surrendered to the short, squat, sloppy winner, Ulysses S. Grant, Grant introduced Lee to his staff. As Lee shook hands with Grant’s military secretary Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian, the Confederate general stared a moment at Parker’s dark features. “I am glad to see one real American here,” the Virginian said. Parker immediately replied: “We are all Americans.”
That, ultimately, was what the war had been all about, just who was an American and what did that mean. Northerners had gone to war—and to their deaths—singing “Glory, Glory Hallelujah,” a song, written by a New England abolitionist, Julia Ward Howe, evoking the Book of Revelation, capturing the millennial idealism that was and is America. Singing “His truth is marching on” imagines a nation of nations, stronger, prouder, freer, than any other, a chosen nation, blessed as more democratic, welcoming, equal, righteous—and thus occasionally more self-righteous—than any other country.
Their Confederate brothers had less grandiose motives. They sang “In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand, an’ lib an’ die in Dixie.” A song epitomizing love of home, this provincial anthem cherished both individual autonomy and regional or ethnic solidarity in a centralizing, homogenizing, nation. Ironically, tragically, disgustingly, the Southerners—most of whom were not slaveholders—defended their liberty, their freedom, their prerogatives, with provincial prejudices that hurt and enslaved three million others.
At its best, this glorious selfishness, combining individualism, provincialism, and a “devil may care” spirit, has shaped Americans’ entrepreneurial and libertarian impulses, especially when balanced by the North’s selfish gloriousness, this grandiose vision of an ideal world which often looked astonishingly like each American’s own backyard.
That “real American,” Ely Parker, lived those paradoxes. Always proud of his people, frequently bruised by prejudice, but ultimately liberated by America at its most glorious, expansive, and redemptive, Hasanowanda, “The Reader,” was born in 1828 on the Towanda Indian Reservation in western New York. Mocked as a young boy while working at an army post for speaking pidgin English, he ultimately became renowned for his eloquence in the language, with penmanship so impressive he won the privilege of drafting the surrender documents ending the Civil War. Ambitious to advance in the white man’s world, he changed his name to Ely Samuel Parker, with Ely pronounced e-Lee as in Robert E. Lee.
Talented and ambitious, he made himself into a role model for today, not just for Native Americans, but for all Americans.
Unfortunately, Parker faced the kind of prejudice that unified Southerners—and that would persist despite the Northern victory. He apprenticed to be a lawyer for three years, only to discover that as a Seneca Indian—one of six nations making up the Iroquois confederation—he was not an American citizen and thus ineligible for the bar. Native Americans would secure those basic rights only in 1924 with the Indian Citizenship Act. In the 1860s, when Parker patriotically tried raising a regiment of Iroquois to fight for the North, New York state officials sneered, “The Civil War is a white man’s war… we will settle our own troubles without any Indian aid.”
A true American, Parker overcame bigotry with pluck and luck. He studied civil engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic in Troy, N.Y. Committed to his Native people despite his all-American ambitions, in 1852 he became a sachem, a subordinate chief renamed Donehogawa, Keeper of the Western Door of the Long House of the Iroquois.
After working on the Erie Canal, Parker ended up at the Mississippi River town of Galena, Ill. There, he befriended, a slovenly, often drunk, former West Point Army captain working as a store clerk. By 1864, that slob was Abraham Lincoln’s best general. Parker served as U.S. Grant’s military secretary as they fought their way toward Appomattox, eventually becoming the Union’s only Native American Brigadier General.
In 1869, now-President Grant made Parker the first Native American Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Parker’s fair, honest approach toward the Indian tribes alienated his Washington rivals. They blasted Grant for appointing a man “who is but a remove from barbarism.” Undeterred. Parker tried balancing his loyalty to his tribe with his loyalty to his country. Occasionally wondering“whether it has been well that I have sought civilization with its bothersome concomitants,” he yearned to return to nature’s “darkness and sacred wilds.” Alas, he realized: “The thought is a happy one, but perhaps impracticable.”
When Parker rushed aid to starving Indians out West without publicizing bids properly, his enemies filed 13 charges of misconduct against him. The resulting Congressional hearing exonerated him—and praised his leadership. Yet the scandal demoralized Parker. He resigned in 1871.
This 19th-century Forrest Gump followed his work on developing the nation’s infrastructure, ending slavery, and Americanizing the West, by experiencing the great post-Civil War Boom, which was then followed by the Bust triggered by the Jay Gould-inspired Panic of 1873. Parker ended his career clerking in Theodore Roosevelt’s police headquarters in New York, as Progressives began reforming the cities. The photographer and urban chronicler, Jacob Riis, was very taken with this “noble old fellow,” who died in 1895. Parker’s only child, Maud Theresa, born in 1878, died in 1956—demonstrating just how few lifespans separate modern Americans from our founders, let alone nineteenth-century heroes like Ely Parker.
Unlike the fictional Gump, this “real American’s” history-making was purposeful not accidental, active not passive. Talented and ambitious, he made himself into a role model for today, not just for Native Americans, but for all Americans who wish to retain their own particular ethnic or religious identity while being patriotic and who wish to advance themselves personally while contributing collectively.
The prejudice Parker endured reflected the selfishness and sinfulness we have not yet exorcised. But his success demonstrates the power of those glorious basic American rights hundreds of millions exercise every day, transforming obstacles into opportunities. The story of Ely Parker, “the real American” at Appomattox, teaches us that America remains the land of liberty and opportunity, the home of a welcoming, empowering, often epoch-making American dream, powerful enough to eclipse whatever demons, both personal and collective, we face.