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.