Gowanda resident served well
Col. Thomas Jefferson Parker: A leader and Civil War hero and leader
By PHIL PALEN
Special to the OBSERVER
GOWANDA — After more than a century since his death, a Civil War officer from Gowanda finally has a monument honoring his life and military service. In October, the Village of Gowanda erected a plaque commemorating Colonel Thomas Jefferson Parker, considered the foremost military man in Cattaraugus County in the 19th Century. The marker was placed on South Water Street as part of an upgrade to the municipal parking lot.
Colonel Parker, born in Seneca County in 1813, moved with his parents to Hamburg when he was 10, and came to Gowanda, then called Lodi, in 1830, to work in the tailoring business with his brother, Francis. He succeeded Francis in the trade and also made harnesses and saddles. The great fire of 1856 destroyed his shop, and five years later, a flood washed away the business, around the time Thomas left Gowanda for the war. His shop stood several yards north of where the new plaque is situated.
Parker’s father was a captain in the War of 1812, and his grandfather was Quartermaster of a cavalry troop in the American Revolution. Thomas carried on the military tradition when he joined the state militia in the 1830s. In 1853 he organized and became colonel of the 64th New York State Militia regiment. When the Civil War broke out, he offered the services of his unit to Gov. Edwin D. Morgan and took the regiment to the military rendezvous at Elmira, where it became the 64th New York Volunteer Infantry, known as the Cattaraugus Regiment. The unit would achieve a record of honor during the Civil War, participating in all the campaigns of the Army of the Potomac, and nearly all its battles.
Parker took his regiment to Virginia in December of 1861, going into winter camp at Alexandria. While there, he visited the White House and met President and Mrs. Lincoln. When the Army of the Potomac mobilized for the spring campaign of 1862, the 64th New York took part in Gen. George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, taking a transport ship to Fortress Monroe, and then marching up the peninsula formed by the York and James rivers, for a planned assault on Richmond. Their baptism of fire came on June 1, at the Battle of Fair Oaks on the outskirts of Richmond, where the 64th sustained 173 casualties. Parker’s horse was shot out from under him, and he assumed command of a brigade when Gen. Oliver Otis Howard was severely wounded. Parker described the battle in a letter to his wife, Lavina, the next day.
“We made a most determined stand, turned the tide and held our ground against a whole Brigade of Mississippi and Alabama Troops, took a number of prisoners and saved the day. We were hotly engaged for two hours. In front of our line the enemy lay in heaps. They charged on us twice and then fell back. I gave the order to fire & they fell like grass before the scythe. My Regiment suffered severely, the balls come like hail into our ranks and about 150 are killed, wounded & missing. It is almost a miracle that I escaped without a wound, men were killed all around me. If I should stay in the service 10 years I never could do myself more honor in one day than I did yesterday.”
The Battle of Fair Oaks, or Seven Pines, marked the turning point of McClellan’s drive against Richmond, during which Robert E. Lee replaced the wounded Joseph E. Johnston as commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. General Lee then went on the offensive, driving McClellan’s forces back from Richmond. During a series of battles in the last week of June known as the Seven Days, the 64th New York fought rear-guard actions at places like Gaines Mill, Peach Orchard, Savage’s Station, White Oak Swamp and Malvern Hill, as the Union army retired to the cover of Union gunboats on the James River at Harrison’s Landing. The Seven Days ended McClellan’s threat against Richmond.
A few weeks later, Thomas Parker resigned his commission and returned to Gowanda. He was then 49 years old, suffering profound hearing loss and still mourning the death of his five-year-old son, Henry, several months earlier. He came back to his wife, the former Lavina Hooker of Perrysburg, and three teenage children, returning to their home at 102 Walnut St.. Another son, George, would be born in 1863.
In civilian life, Parker held a number of positions of public trust, serving as Persia town justice from 1852 to 1882, deputy clerk of Cattaraugus County from 1871 to 1874, and deputy clerk of the State Assembly in 1872-73. He was a solid 6′ 1 ½” tall and weighed 198 pounds while in service. After his wife of 51 years passed away in 1892, he continued to reside on Walnut Street until his death on May 26, 1908 at age 94. He was buried beside her in Gowanda Pine Hill Cemetery. Several of their descendants still reside in the Gowanda area.
Reporting on the Battle of Fair Oaks, the Olean Advertiser described Thomas Parker in this way: “Colonel Parker has shown himself to be a brave intrepid commander, and abilities were acknowledged on the field of battle by being assigned to the command of the first brigade of General Richardson’s division. Captain Renwick is hearty and emphatic in his praises of Colonel Parker for coolness, courage and military skill upon the battle field.”
The 1893 history of Cattaraugus County wrote about Thomas Parker, “No man now living in Cattaraugus County has been longer or more prominently identified with military affairs than has Colonel Parker. From the interesting period of general training to long after the Rebellion he was active in almost every movement.”