In Washington, D.C., I could go almost anywhere without too many problems with racism. However, whenever we were going south to Fredericksburg, my brothers and sisters and I were told to be on our best behavior. We were going through the South where we could be locked up, beaten up, or worse because of our color. We always thought that we were safe once we got to Fredericksburg.
After listening to Rev. Hashmel Turner—the most well-known member of the 23rd USCT, current president of the Fredericksburg NAACP, and a former Fredericksburg City Council member—I realized that Fredericksburg was segregated in my early years of coming to the city. As a visitor, my family treated us so well that we did not really go to restaurants or the theaters—except for our biggest treat, which was to go to Carl’s Ice Cream shop. Carl’s is still a big treat!
One trip in 1958 I remember so vividly because of two events. The first was that we went to our great Uncle John Ennis’ farm in the Chancellorsville area. My uncle Steven Campbell and I chased Uncle John’s horse with sticks so that we could get a ride on him. Being city boys, we did not know that the horse would not take too kindly to being chased with a stick. After my Uncle John died, his farm was sold, and it is now one of the housing developments on the Chancellorsville Battlefield. However, I just do not remember where the property was on the battlefield. Now, when I give tours in various parts of the battlefield, I wonder if I have been on Uncle John’s old farm ground again. I probably will never know.
The second event changed my life forever! Most of our family went to church service at our family church in Fredericksburg, Shiloh Baptist Church New Site. My great grandfather, Reverend David Ennis, had been an associate minister there. Instead, on that particular trip, my father took me to the Fredericksburg Battlefield and National Cemetery. It was there that I began my fascination with the Civil War. Whether it was the few monuments in the cemetery or my standing at the crest of Marye’s Heights, I thought I was standing on top of the world, thinking about the Union attacks here. At that time, I did not know about the second battle of Fredericksburg, which was part of the Chancellorsville campaign, so I did not know that the Union soldiers overran this same area atop the hill, five months later.
At the time, of course, I did not know I would someday serve in a joint honor guard—consisting of USCT, white Union reenactors, and Confederate reenactors—that would make the annual procession from Shiloh Old Site to the Fredericksburg National Cemetery and then serve during the National Park Service program. This annual procession originated from the Fredericksburg community’s celebration of the Trail to Freedom program, a program celebrating the escape of more than 10,000 slaves from the Union army’s first occupation of Fredericksburg. This event is discussed in John Washington’s slave narrative, Memorys of the Past, as well as in Professor David Blight’s book A Slave No More.
John Hennessy and the park have presented many programs about John Washington, and now, Washington has an exhibit in the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center that discusses Good Friday, April 18, 1862, when the Union army arrived in Fredericksburg for the first time. The Union army was in the Fredericksburg area constantly from April 1862 until May 1864. That, in turn, led to four major battles and made this area the bloodiest landscape in North America! The reason: Fredericksburg is right between the two capitals of the Civil War—50 miles south of Washington DC, the Union capital, and 50 miles north of Richmond, VA, the Confederate capital. More than 100,000 soldiers were killed or wounded in this area during the two years the war was here.
I remember another trip when my father had all of us piled in an old 1954 Plymouth. After leaving Fredericksburg and driving up old Shirley Highway, a state trooper stopped my father. He told my father that he was speeding and had been eluding him for a mile. Well, that old car could barely do 45 miles per hour and could never drive faster than a police car. He was taken to court and had to pay a big fine for something he did not do.
From that day until 1982, I hated Virginia, except for my beloved Fredericksburg. That was the year Guardian Federal Savings was acquired by Perpetual Savings Bank—my employer at the time—whose operational headquarters was in Alexandria, VA. From that time going forward, I have spent much of my time in Virginia. Now, the 23rd assists the Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s Office with its National Night Out program.