Edward R. S. Canby, United States Army officer, son of Israel T. and Elizabeth (Piatt) Canby, was born at Piatt's Landing, Kentucky, on November 9, 1817. His father, a country doctor, later moved his family to Indiana. Canby enrolled in Wabash College and was appointed in 1835 to the United States Military Academy; he graduated thirtieth of thirty-one in the class of 1839. He married Louisa Hawkins of Crawfordsville, Indiana, on August 1 of that year. Lieutenant Canby served in the South, notably in the Second Seminole War in Florida (1839–42). During the Mexican War he earned two brevets in the campaign of Gen. Winfield Scott against Mexico City. Between 1848 and 1855 Major Canby held staff posts on the West Coast and in Washington, D.C. He was ordered to the Tenth Infantry Regiment in the Trans-Mississippi and later took part in the Mormon Expedition (1857–58) under Col. Albert Sidney Johnston.
Soon after the Civil War began, Canby was named colonel of the Nineteenth Infantry at Fort Defiance, New Mexico Territory. In a series of battles (Valverde on February 21, 1862, and Apache Canyon and Glorieta on March 27 and 28), Canby's troops blunted a Confederate invasion led by Gen. Henry H. Sibley, who turned back into Texas. Canby's actions prevented Confederate expansion from Texas into the greater Southwest.
After staff duties in Washington, D.C., from January 1863 through May 1864, Canby, as newly promoted major general of volunteers, took command of the Military Division of West Mississippi. He was wounded by guerrillas at White River, Arkansas, on November 6, 1864, but recovered and led the land campaign to capture Mobile, Alabama (March through April 1865), in cooperation with Gen. Gordon Granger and Adm. David G. Farragut. Canby received the surrender of Confederates under Gen. Richard Taylor on May 4, 1865, and that of the Trans-Mississippi forces of Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith on May 26.
The army was reorganized in July 1866, and Canby ranked ninth of only ten regular brigadier generals. His command included several states on the Gulf of Mexico, but Gen. Philip H. Sheridan reduced Canby's department to Louisiana. Sheridan supervised Texas through subordinate officers, Gen. Charles Griffin and Gen. Joseph J. Reynolds. All three of these officers were strong Republicans. After devoting Reconstruction time to Louisiana and the Carolinas, Canby replaced Reynolds in the Fifth Military District, where he served from November 1868 to March 1869. As an independent in politics, Canby was recognized during Reconstruction as one of the most fair-minded army officers in the South.
His main accomplishment in Texas was supervising the process that led to the ratification of the Constitution of 1869. New southern state constitutions giving Blacks the right to vote were required under the congressional Reconstruction Acts of 1867. Canby saw to it that the convention records were preserved and published. He removed few civilian officials, and his political appointments were judicious. He carefully protected the rights of freedmen without suppressing Democrats.
In March 1869 President U. S. Grant reinstated Reynolds as commander in Texas. Reynolds had been removed by President Andrew Johnson, who thought he was partisan. Grant reassigned him, however, and ordered Canby to the Department of the Columbia, in the Pacific Northwest. There the Modoc Indians, based in an area known as the Lava Beds in California, were attacking settlers in California and Oregon. On April 11, 1873, Canby went unarmed to a parley and was killed when set upon by Modoc negotiators, including their leader, Captain Jack. Canby was the only regular army general killed in the Trans-Mississippi Indian wars.