Confederate in North Dakota
North Dakota was not a state when the North and the South fought the Civil War from 1861 to 1865. However, a multitude of Union veterans moved into Dakota Territory in the years after the war had ended.
Many of these war veterans became the leaders and first families of towns across the span of what became North Dakota. For instance, William Henry Brown, who had served in the Union Army with the Sixty-first Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry regiment, came to Grand Forks in 1887 and became the first mayor of the city shortly after his arrival.
North Dakota, being in the northern tier of the U.S., would always be linked with the North, the Union, and the blue cloth of the Yankee uniforms. However, as life brings many surprises and odd bends in the road, a former Confederate soldier named John Randolph Parsons moved to Grand Forks and made his home there for many years.
When asked by a newspaper reporter about his life, Parson said he was born in 1836 in Missouri. Parsons also said; "I enlisted in the Confederate Army in the spring of 1861, under the command of Colonel Martin E. Green."
He was twenty-five years old when he enlisted. Parsons related that "Mark Twain, or Samuel E. Clemens, as we knew him, was in the same company."
"We first went to Monroe City, Missouri," remembered Mr. Parsons, "next to Shelbina, Missouri, and from there to [the Battle of] Pea Ridge." Parson later served at the Battle of Vicksburg.
By 1910, Parsons had lived in Grand Forks for decades and the old animosities from the war had faded. The previous winter, Parsons had visited in the South and was asked if he had a gray uniform. Parson replied that he didn't, saying that living in the North as he did, he had not given serious thought to the idea. His friends asked if he would wear a gray uniform if they sent him one, and Parsons replied that he would.
In May of 1910, "a splendid gray uniform" arrived at Parsons' address. Old Union veterans reported the arrival of the uniform to the local Grand Army of the Republic members and, on this date in 1910, the Union veterans made a friendly "raid" at his home. The raiders requested that Captain Parsons don his gray uniform. The Yankees said the white-whiskered Parsons had a distinct resemblance to the great general, Robert E. Lee. The night ended with refreshments served by Mrs. Parsons, who had been warned about the coming raid.
The Blue and the Gray were united on Memorial Day two days later, when Captain Parsons wore his Rebel uniform and Adjutant A.J. Pierce wore his Union uniform. The two former enemies "stood with clasped hands" on the platform—a symbol of the reuniting of the nation after the trauma of the Civil War.
Some years after this, Parsons' Confederate uniform was accidentally burned up in a fire, and the G.A.R. members "chipped in and bought him another."
Parsons later moved to California where he died at the age of 82.
Dakota Datebook written by Professor Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.
Sources: "Blue And Gray Are United Again," Grand Forks Herald, May 29, 1910, p. 16.
"Blue And Gray Stood Together," Grand Forks Herald, May 31, 1910, p. 1.
"Pioneer Days Are Recalled: Capt. J.R. Parsons, 75 Years Old Today, Tells of Early History," Grand Forks Herald, August 3, 1911, p. 8.
Scrapbook, Willis A. Gorman, G.A.R., no. 2, 1886-1936, B-76-MMB, Myra Museum, Grand Forks, ND, article by W.P. Davies on Parsons.
Scrapbook (Wallpaper Book), Myra Museum, Grand Forks, ND, news photo of Captain John Parsons with captions.
"Many Attend Last Rites [W.H. Brown]," Grand Forks Herald, October 27, 1910, p. 6.
"Biographical Sketches of the Members of the Legislature, 1891, [W.H. Brown]" Bismarck Daily Tribune, January 8, 1891, p. 4.