Did you know… John Parke? Civil War Tuesday
Quiet, determined and competent – those aren’t qualities that always win fanfare and recognition, yet few armies could function without such commanders. John Parke was one of them. He was present or commanding in many major battles, but largely ignored in history.
John was born on September 22, 1827, in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. His parents were Francis and Sarah Parke. When John was eight his family moved to the Philadelphia area. He studied at a private academy, then at the University of Pennsylvania before entering West Point, graduating second in his class. Testimony to the hard work and intelligence he exhibited at the Point, he was commissioned a second lieutenant of the Topographical Engineers, a group consisting only of officers who were handpicked and used for mapping and the design and construction of federal civil works such as lighthouses and other coastal fortifications and navigational routes.
As an engineer, Parke helped determine the boundary of Iowa, the boundary between the United States and Canada, and surveyed proposed routes for railroads between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Ambrose Burnside appointed him brigadier general and gave him a brigade defending the Carolina coast. One of his first assignments was to take the neglected Fort Macon. Macon was built during the war of 1812, to defend the coast against the British, but was allowed to fall into ruin in subsequent decades. The gun emplacements rotted, walls were in poor repair, and the design of the fort a generation out of date. The Confederates hastily mounted a defense, having just over four hundred men, and insufficient time or materials to bring the fort up to date. Parke brought the Third division North Carolina, an effective force of 2469 men, along with rifled artillery.
In March 1862, Parke seized the nearby coastal towns. Burnside already possessed Cape Hatteras. The fort is on an island south of Hatteras, and Parke sought to isolate it from supplies and reinforcement while gaining ports for the Federals. In an uncharacteristic move, McClellan actually approved Burnside and Parke’s initiatives on the coast. On March 23, Parke sent a demand to the Confederate commander, Colonel White, for the surrender of the fort. White declined but lacked sufficient men to prevent Parke from landing on the island. Parke invaded and set up four batteries that would bear on the fort: four 8-inch (20.3 cm) mortars at a range of 1200 yards (1100 meters); four 10-inch (25.4 cm) mortars at a range of 1600 yards (1460 meters); three 30-pounder (13.6 kg) rifled Parrotts at a range of 1300 yards (1190 meters); and a 12-pounder (5.4 kg) boat howitzer at a range of 1200 yards (1100 meters). Preparations proceeded, with the Confederates powerless to stop them. By April 25, Parke was ready. Burnside repeated Parke’s demand for surrender, and when it was refused, the artillery barrage began. Three US Navy ships attempted to participate in the shelling, but the notoriously rough waters of the Hatteras area made accuracy impossible, and they withdrew. By 5 PM, the walls were beginning to crumble, and the CSA commander feared a direct hit on the fort’s magazine. Surrender followed, and Parke had his first major victory. North Carolina hadn’t yet been a year outside the Union, and already had lost most of its coastline.
The victory resulted in John Parke’s promotion to brevet major general of volunteers. He transferred with Burnside to the Army of the Potomac, where he served on staff for Burnside. He later re-assumed field commands at Antietam, leading IX Corps, and at Vicksburg, each time returning to a staff role after effective leadership.
He took his part in the Peninsula Campaign but found time to encourage and comfort a widow from the Topographical Engineers, whose husband fell due to typhoid. John and Ellen Blight Ricketts were married but had no children. He gave Burnside advice during the Battle of the Wilderness but was gravely ill during Cold Harbor.
At Vicksburg, Grant said of him, “On [June] the 14th, General Parke arrived with two divisions of Burnside’s corps, and was immediately dispatched to Haines’ Bluff. These latter troops–Herron’s and Parke’s–were the reinforcements already spoken of sent by Halleck in anticipation of their being needed. They arrived none too soon. ” Parke defeated Lee at Fort Stedman, and played an effective role at Five Forks, preventing Lee from receiving reinforcements.Grant, Ulysses S.. Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (p. 190). LeClue [Kindle. Kindle Edition.
He had none of the panache of a Custer or a Stuart. He gave orders, devised strategies, provided maps, and was simply there, doing his job, whenever Burnside or Grant needed him.
After the war, he provided maps of New Mexico for fellow general Lew Wallace, served as commandant of West Point, retiring with a regular army rank of colonel in 1889.
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