His First Name was “Presto?” A Black History Month Mystery

Roster entry: Presto Garris,” Company F, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, Bates’ History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, Vol. 1, 1869 (public domain; double click to enlarge).

“Presto?” The first name stood out like a sore thumb on the roster of my great-grandfather’s Civil War regiment—one with a rank and file populated largely by soldiers with Germanic surnames: “Acher,” “Bachman,” “Bauer,” “Bauman,” “Burger,” “Dachrodt,” “Diehl,” “Eisenbraun,” “Eppler,” “Fritz,” “Grimm,” “Guth,” “Handwerk,” “Hertzog,” “Keiser,” “Knecht,” “Knorr,” “Koenig,” “Laub,” “Metzger,” “Münch,” “Rehrig,” “Reinert,” “Richter,” “Sauerwein,” “Schmidt,” “Schneider,” “Strauss,” “Ulrich,” “Volkenand,” “Wagner,” “Weiss,” and “Zeppenfeld.”

Many of their given or middle names were equally as Germanic—“Adolph,” “Bernhard,” “Gottlieb,” “Friedrich,” “Heinrich,” “Levi,” “Matthias,” “Reinhold,” “Tilghman,” “Tobias,” and “Werner.” In addition, one of the regiment’s component units—Company K—had even been founded by a German immigrant with the intent of creating “a new German company” staffed entirely by German-Americans who had been born in the Lehigh Valley, as well as recent émigrés from Germany.

So, “Presto” as a given name seemed like it warranted further investigation. Did the spelling of this soldier’s given name signal that he had emigrated from a different part of the world—possibly Italy? There was, after all, another member of the 47th Pennsylvania’s ranks with a seemingly Italian surname—Battaglia (later proven to be an immigrant of Switzerland). Plus, there were also multiple men with Irish surnames who had also enlisted with the 47th.

Or, maybe this soldier had been employed as a magician prior to enlisting in the military? (Probably not, but strange discoveries are surprisingly common with genealogical research.)

A more likely scenario? A harried Union Army clerk, in his haste to process new enlistees, simply omitted the “n” at the end of this soldier’s name—making him “Presto” for posterity’s sake rather than “Preston.”

I just had to know. Who was Presto?

Listing for “Presto Garris,” Company F, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, Civil War Veterans’ Card File, 1861-1866, Pennsylvania State Archives (public domain).

It turned out that this 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer wasn’t a magician, and he wasn’t an immigrant from Italy, but he was someone whose first and last names were badly mangled by multiple “mis-spellers” over decades of data entry.

Upon further investigation, it became clear that he was a formerly enslaved, 33-year-old black man who had enlisted with the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry on October 5, 1862 while the regiment was stationed near Beaufort, South Carolina—meaning that my great-grandfather’s regiment had become an integrated one at least three months before President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Totally “wowed” by this discovery, I searched for even more information about this very important enlisted man, but my quest wasn’t as easy as I hoped it would be because the regimental clerk who had entered “Presto” on the roster for Company F of the 47th Pennsylvania Regiment in the Registers of Pennsylvania Volunteers had spelled his name incorrectly—an error that was then perpetuated by historian Samuel P. Bates in his History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5.

Possible name variants for an African American member of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, U.S. Civil War General Pension Index Cards (National Archives, public domain).

Fortunately, this soldier’s listing in the U.S. Civil War General Pension Index Card system was slightly more helpful, providing multiple “alias” (alternate) spellings of his name: “Presto Garris,” “Bristor Geddes,” and “Bristor Gethers,” as well as a potential spelling for the name of his wife, “Rachel Gethers,” and a possible place of residency and year of death—1894—because his widow had filed for a U.S. Civil War Widow’s Pension from South Carolina on July 27, 1894.

Despite those hints, it took quite some time to pick up this soldier’s trail again. Eventually, though, that pension index card data helped me to find a Freedmen’s Bureau contract for him which confirmed that he had indeed settled in South Carolina post-war. Dated February 12, 1868, this document also confirmed that he had been signed to a contract with 14 other Freedmen by the Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina office of the U.S. Freemen’s Bureau to provide labor for the Whitehouse Plantation.

List showing “Brister Geddis,” et. al. on an 1868 Freedmen’s Bureau contract with the Whitehouse Plantation in South Carolina (public domain; double click to enlarge).

But, in another seemingly frustrating turn of events, that contract caused further confusion surrounding his name—this time spelling it as “Brister Geddis.” Fortunately, this new variant was repeated in the 1870 federal census—a sign that it was either the correct spelling or at least a closer approximation of how this soldier had pronounced his own name. Describing him as a 42-year-old black male residing in Beaufort, South Carolina, that same census also noted that he lived in Beaufort Township with his wife “Rachel,” a 24-year-old black woman (estimated birth year 1846), and son “Peter,” a 6-year-old black child, and confirmed that all three had been born in South Carolina. And that census record also noted that both “Brister” and “Rachel” were involved in farming land valued at $1,500.

Unfortunately, the 1880 federal census taker created still more confusion by illegibly writing the name as “Geddes, Brista” or “Geddis, Bristor”—and gave rise to two new puzzles by omitting son Peter’s name and also radically altering the estimated birth year of wife “Rachel”—changing it from 1846 to 1820 by stating that she was a 60-year-old who was four years older than her husband (rather than younger as she had reportedly been in 1870).

Even more frustrating? The special veterans’ census of 1890 altered the spelling of his name yet again—this time to “Brister Gedders.”

At that point, I made the decision to do everything humanly possible to right the wrong of this 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer’s forgotten military service by launching a GoFundMe campaign to support the purchase of this his full set of his military and pension records from the National Archives (as well as those of the other eight African American men who enlisted with the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry).

If just three of you who regularly read the content on this website and follow our Facebook page donate $10 each to this campaign, we will be able to purchase the entire Compiled Military Service File for this forgotten member of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers and make it publicly available (free of charge) to other family history researchers and historians. If just four of you donate $20 each, we would also be able to purchase the entire Federal Military Pension Application File for that same soldier—a file that may very well contain critical vital statistics about this soldier’s birth, life and death, as well as vital statistics for his widow and son.

We might just even be able to determine when and where Brister/Bristor was buried and whether or not a gravestone marks his final resting place. If we find that no marker exists, or that the existing one has been damaged, or that the gravestone carver spelled his name incorrectly, we can then fix that wrong as well by asking the appropriate county, state and federal authorities to erect a suitable veteran’s headstone for him.

Please help us honor the military service of this unsung hero by making your donation today to our GoFundMe campaign, Honor 9 Black Soldiers of the American Civil War.”

With Sincere Gratitude,

Laurie Snyder, Managing Editor
47th Pennsylvania Volunteers: One Civil War Regiment’s Story

 

Sources:

1. Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers: 1861-5, Vol. 1. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: B. Singerly, State Printer, 1869.

2. “Garris, Presto,” in Civil War Veterans’ Card File, 1861-1866. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State Archives.

3. “Garris, Presto” (alias “Geddes, Bristor”, alias “Gethers, Bristor”), in U.S. Civil War General Pension Index, 1890-1894. Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

4. “Roll of Co. F., 47th Regiment, Infantry,” in Registers of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865, in “Records of the Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs.” Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State Archives, retrieved online February 10, 2020.

 

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