April 12, 2011

Custer's Roommate

If you own property in Sierra County, New Mexico, you recently received your “2011 notice of value,” stating the assessed value of your real property from the present county assessor, Keith W. Whitney. One hundred and twenty seven years ago, Sierra County got its first assessor, the colorful Lt. Col. James Porter Parker.

Parker was among the many Civil War soldiers who moved west after the war to make a life for themselves. Our former assessor Parker has been confused the district judge and eventual Supreme Court justice, Frank W. Parker. Parker the assessor was first cousin to Mary Todd Lincoln—his father was the brother of Mrs. Lincoln’s mother. His father’s family was originally from Kentucky. And here’s something else of note, Parker attended West Point and while there was a roommate of George Armstrong Custer.  
Lt. Col. James Porter Parker, CSA.
In the book, Faces of the Confederacy, an Album of Southern Soldiers and their Stories by Ronald S. Coddington.  We learn this: In 1861, Custer remembered “I bade a fond farewell to my former friend and classmate, with whom I had lived on terms of closer intimacy and companionship than with any other being. We had marched by each other’s side year by year . . . All this was to be thrust from our memory as far as possible and our paths and aims in life were to run counter to each other in the future.”

Their friendship might have seemed unlikely. One historian describes Parker as a stout, slow-moving, rugged young man almost the physical opposite of Custer. According to one cadet, the pair “fooled away many an hour that should have been devoted to study.” Parker was dismissed from school and did not graduate. He did receive a commission from the Union Army as a brevet second lieutenant. He resigned and became a Lt. Col. In the Confederate Army and joined the First Mississippi Light Artillery which was dispatched to Vicksburg. Later he took charge of several batteries and helped defend Port Hudson, Louisiana, during a 48-day siege that ended with surrender. Parker spent the next two years a POW in Union prisons. He signed the Oath of Allegiance in July 1863 and was released.
James Porter Parker stands behind the level with a survey crew.
James Porter Parker, Sierra County's first assessor, stands in front of a recently burnt out building in Kingston. James McKenna, in Black Range Tales, implied that Parker had a propensity for pomposity.

After the war, he found his way to Kingston and worked as a civil engineer and became the first Sierra County assessor in 1884. James McKenna wrote about Parker in his Black Range Tales, recalling a speech Parker made following a folly at a dance. McKenna noted that the portly Parker had squeezed into his West Point uniform for a dance. Parker never married and died in 1918, and is probably buried in one of the unmarked graves in the Kingston Cemetery.  --Matti Nunn Harrison

1 comment: