St. Charles County Historical Society Donates David H. Smith Papers to 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers: One Civil War Regiment’s Story

Honorable Discharge (excerpt), First Sergeant David H. Smith, Company H, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, December 25, 1865 (public domain).

A challenging year for many Americans due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a faltering economy, and civil strife, 2020 proved to be a remarkably constructive one on many fronts for a humanities project dedicated to preserving and educating children and adults about the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry—a Union Army unit which made history during the American Civil War as the only regiment from Pennsylvania to participate in the 1864 Red River Campaign across Louisiana, and which also was involved in guarding Mary Surratt and the other key conspirators involved in Lincoln’s assassination in 1865.

One of the most important developments in 2020 was the donation by the St. Charles County Historical Society in St. Charles, Missouri of its David H. Smith Papers collection to 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers: One Civil War Regiment’s Story.

Smith was one of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers who served for the duration of the war. Following his enrollment at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on August 22, 1861, Smith mustered in at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg on September 19 of that year as a private with Company H. Described as a 19-year-old farmer with light hair, blue eyes, and a light complexion who was five feet, nine inches tall, he was promoted to the rank of corporal on October 21, 1862—the day before the regiment was bloodied badly in the Battle of Pocotaligo, South Carolina. He then re-enlisted with the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers in mid-October of 1863 at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, Florida, where half of the regiment was stationed at the time, and was subsequently promoted to the rank of Sergeant on September 18, 1864—one day before the Battle of Opequan, Virginia, and promoted again to First Sergeant on April 21, 1865—exactly one week after Lincoln’s assassination. Smith then continued to serve until the regiment was honorably mustered out at Charleston, South Carolina on Christmas Day of that same year.

According to Adam Pesek, a collections volunteer with the St. Charles County Historical Society who reached out to Laurie Snyder, the managing editor of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers’ project, society personnel made the helpful overture because they had made a decision to downsize the society’s collection, and were seeking to redistribute a range of items to other organizations whose ties to those items were stronger.

Society archivist Amy G. Haake explained that she and her colleagues had made the decision to donate Smith’s papers when they realized “that Smith had no connections to St. Charles County, whether through marriage or otherwise,” and wanted to find a group which would ensure that the historic documents would be preserved and made publicly available for study by other historians and history students. Among the original documents are certificates related to promotions received by Smith during his tenure with the 47th Pennsylvania, as well as his reenlistment and honorable discharge paperwork.

“My plan is to digitize Sergeant Smith’s papers in 2021, research and write a biographical sketch of his life, and then make each of Smith’s documents and his biography publicly available online via our project’s website and Facebook page. I will then also donate Smith’s papers to a museum or historical society in Pennsylvania,” said Snyder. “These precious papers not only document Smith’s service to the nation; they provide tangible links to a defining time in our nation’s history—reminding us all of the sacrifices made by the heroes who left hearth and home to fight for the Union of a country they loved more than life.”

*******************************************************

47th Pennsylvania Volunteers: One Civil War Regiment’s Story is an educational initiative dedicated to documenting and raising public awareness about the history-making role played by the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry during the American Civil War, as well as the contributions made by its members, post-war, to America’s growth and the advancement of its democratic ideals. Integrated in October of 1862 (prior to President Abraham Lincoln’s official release of the Emancipation Proclamation), this regiment went on to become the only regiment from Pennsylvania to participate in the Union’s 1864 Red River Campaign across Louisiana and the only regiment from Pennsylvania to have men held captive as prisoners of war at Camp Ford—the largest Confederate prison west of the Mississippi River, and was also involved in guarding Mary Surratt and the other key conspirators in Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 during the early days of their imprisonment.

Founded in 1956, the St. Charles County Historical Society (SCCHS) is a nonprofit organization which was initially established to preserve the history of St. Charles County, Missouri. In 2009, it merged with the St. Charles Genealogical Society in order to expand upon its mission “to foster an understanding and appreciation of all aspects of Saint Charles County history” to ensure that genealogical records of county residents are also preserved.

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. Freedmen’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.

 

Faces of the 47th Project Honors History-Making Civil War Soldiers from Pennsylvania

First Lieutenant William Wallace Geety, Co. H, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, c. 1864-1865.

A tantalizing new video released by 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers: One Civil War Regiment’s Story just opened an important new portal to the 19th century for Civil War enthusiasts, teachers, students, and genealogists.

Faces of the 47th is part of a larger, ongoing initiative to document and raise public awareness about the 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry – the only regiment from the Keystone State to fight in the Union’s 1864 Red River Campaign  across Louisiana. The video presents the photographic and illustrated images of more than two dozen men who fought with the all-volunteer unit between 1861 and 1865.

“Each one of these images holds the potential to help family history researchers feel closer to their Civil War-era ancestors while also enabling teachers, students and Civil War enthusiasts to deepen their connections to one of the most painful chapters in the American narrative,” explains Laurie Snyder, managing editor for the project. “By ‘putting faces to the names’ on military muster rolls, we’re bringing history to life while also paying tribute to those who fought to eradicate slavery and preserve our nation’s union.”

The photo digitization project received early support from Thomas MacEntee, founder of High-Definition Genealogy, via The Genealogy Fairy™ program, which enabled Snyder to locate and digitize photographs of key members of the regiment. Among the images preserved in this initial collection are the faces of a regimental chaplain, musicians, prisoners of war (POWs), military surgeons, and officers and enlisted men who were grievously wounded or killed in combat, as well as several men who became inventors, leading business executives and elected officials in and beyond Pennsylvania after the war.

George Dillwyn John (third from left; formerly, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers), Grand Army of the Republic gathering, Will Robinson Post, Illinois, c. 1926.

“At the time I applied for the grant, there were hundreds of photographs tucked away in public libraries, historical societies, universities, and private family history collections from Maine to California and Michigan to Louisiana. Most had not yet been digitized and might have been lost for all time had Thomas MacEntee not provided the support he did when he did,” said Snyder. “More work still needs to be done, of course, because there are photos still not yet scanned, but the project took more than two dozen giant steps forward with just that one grant from Thomas. He’s a hero in my book.”

Other significant support for the project has been provided by the Burrowes and Wasserman families.

About the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers

Joseph Eugene Walter, Regimental Band, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, c. 1861.

Recruited primarily at community gathering places in their respective home towns, the soldiers who served with the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry were primarily men of German heritage whose families still spoke German or “Pennsylvania Dutch” more than a century after their ancestors emigrated from Germany in search of religious and political freedom. Still others were recent immigrants from Germany, Ireland and Cuba. Formerly enslaved black men who had been freed by the regiment from plantations in South Carolina and Louisiana were added to regimental rosters in 1862 and 1864.

In addition to fighting in the battles of Sabine Cross Roads/Mansfield, Pleasant Hill and Monett’s Ferry/Cane River during the Red River Campaign, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers also engaged in the defense of Washington, D.C. in 1861 and again in 1865, following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln; the capture of Saint John’s Bluff, Florida and Battle of Pocotaligo, South Carolina (1862); the garrisoning of Forts Taylor and Jefferson in Key West and the Dry Tortugas, Florida (1863); Union Major-General Philip Sheridan’s tide-turning Shenandoah Valley Campaign (1864), including the battles of Berryville, Opequon, Fisher’s Hill, and Cedar Creek; and provost (military police) and Reconstruction duties in Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina (1865). Most were finally released from duty when the regiment formally mustered out on Christmas Day in 1865.

Learn More and Support

To learn more about the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers and lend your support to this historic initiative, visit the website of 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers: One Civil War Regiment’s Story, and follow the project on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube.

 

 

47th Pennsylvania Volunteers: One Civil War Regiment’s Story Receives Grant to Digitize Historic Civil War-era Photographs

Captain John Peter Shindel Gobin, Co. C, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, c. 1862 (public domain).

Captain John Peter Shindel Gobin, Co. C, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, c. 1862 (public domain).

Thomas MacEntee, founder of High-Definition Genealogy, recently announced that 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers: One Civil War Regiment’s Story will receive a grant to begin digitizing and making publicly available photographs of the officers and enlisted men who served with the 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry during America’s Civil War.

“Five percent of all revenue at Genealogy Bargains is set aside each month to fund The Genealogy Fairy™ program,” explained MacEntee. “The goal is to give back to the genealogy community through a series of grants to organizations and individuals undertaking worthwhile genealogy-related projects.”

“This early support of our work is incredibly important,” said Laurie Snyder, managing editor for 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers: One Civil War Regiment’s Story. “There are currently hundreds of photographs scattered across America in public libraries, historical societies, universities, and private family history collections – carte de visite images of individual soldiers and the physicians who treated their battle wounds, as well as group photos of the companies in which they served. Most have yet to be digitized, and could be lost for all time if a fire or flood damaged one of the buildings where they’re held.”

William DeWitt Clinton Rodrock, Chaplain, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers (Fort Jefferson, 1 December 1863, public domain)

William DeWitt Clinton Rodrock, Chaplain, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers (Fort Jefferson, 1 December 1863, public domain)

Preserving the photographs of those who served with this particular Civil War unit is especially vital, explained Snyder, because the 47th Pennsylvania was the only regiment from the Keystone State to fight in the Union’s Red River Campaign across Louisiana during the spring of 1864 and was also the only Pennsylvania regiment to have men held as prisoners of war at Camp Ford, the largest Confederate Army prison west of the Mississippi. In addition, the 47th Pennsylvania was also stationed at Beaufort, South Carolina and fought in the Battle of Pocotaligo in 1862, garrisoned Forts Taylor and Jefferson in Florida, fought in the Union’s tide-turning Shenandoah Valley Campaign during the fall of 1864, helped to defend the nation’s capital following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, and assisted with Reconstruction efforts in Charleston, South Carolina during the summer and fall of 1865.

“Each one of these photos not only holds the potential to help family members feel closer to their ancestors, but has the power to enable teachers to help students truly connect with and appreciate their Civil War studies. By ‘putting faces to the names’ on military muster rolls, we will be bringing history to life for those wanting to learn more about this regiment while also honoring those who fought to preserve our nation’s union.”

To learn more about the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers and lend your support to this historic initiative, visit the website of 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers: One Civil War Regiment’s Story, and follow the project on Facebook and Twitter.