During some of these visits to the city with my mother, I would stop at my Aunt Hattie’s house and she would always have food for us, until she got too old to cook the way she used to cook. So, we would go to Kentucky Fried Chicken, Popeye’s, or a buffet restaurant to eat. Aunt Hattie would always talk about her family, but never about slavery or the Civil War. She did talk about her parents, Rev. David Ennis and Jane Redmond Ennis.
Who knew, at that time, that after I started volunteering for the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center, I would find a couple of documents? One would state that Martha Stevens/Innis sold my great grandfather his property on George Street in Fredericksburg. The second was a memo about my Aunt Hattie going to the Park asking questions about the Innis property (“Ennis” was also spelled “Innis”) and its relation to our family.
There had to be a connection, because white Martha sold the property to black David, and two of his children were named John and Martha. There was a John Ennis/Innis related to Martha. I am not very much into genealogy, so I turned this information over to my cousin LeVaniel Ennis.
Although much of the family property is sold off now, some of my relatives still have property around our old homeplace. Jane Redmond was David’s second wife, and their property was on Lafayette Boulevard in the Morningside section. The old house is still there but no longer belongs to our family, although some of the houses surrounding it still do. I remember visiting my Aunt Virginia and her family there in the early 1960’s. Now, I take that road from the Fredericksburg Battlefield down to the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield.
While at the Park, I was involved with the board of directors with the old Civil War Life Foundation. Terry Thomann was the proprietor of the Civil War Life Museum and wanted to get a bigger space. The timing was not right, as the country was going through a recession before and just after President Barack Obama was elected. I met some influential people in this community while on the board, such as General Tom Cleland, Horace McCaskill, John Cummings, and Roger Braxton. After the board was dissolved, four of us from the board became the original members of the 23rd USCT. John Cummings and I co-founded the 23rd, and Roger and Horace were two of the five original members. The fifth was Rev. Hashmel Turner.
Rev. Turner was introduced to me by my cousin, LeVaniel Ennis, as they grew up together and were good friends. Hashmel was the one who told me that there would be a 23rd USCT even if the two of us were the only members. He came up with the slogan that “we tell the untold story of the Civil War.” Other members joined: James Anderson, Jimmy Price, Kevin Williams, Jerry Richards, Yvette Blake, Moses Hume, Jesse Johnson, Lou Carter, Bob Wright, Gilbert Garcia, Dr. James K, Bryant II, Morris Lockhart, Michael Preston, Michael Hinton, Ed Gantt,Frank White, and several others. Kevin became my confidant and encouraged me to try various ideas to make the organization work. Hashmel, Kevin, and I became the advisory committee. Dr. Bryant provided a tremendous amount of research about the 23rd and is writing the regimental history of the regiment. Later, Yvette became very instrumental in the organizational process.
After 2014, Ed began to fill in at programs and lectures for me when I was unable to make them. Today, Ed and Yvette are the new president and vice president of the group. They add new ideas and communication skills to the group to carry us into the future. We were mentored by the members of the 54th Massachusetts Co. B of Washington, D.C. The Godfather of the USCT, Lou Carter, is now the President of the 54th. They were representing the 23rd USCT in this area before we organized.
We started the 23rd at the John J. Wright Museum in January 2011, when Terry Miller was the executive director and Roger was a board member. Now Roger is a co-executive director. Terry started a Civil War Sesquicentennial exhibit about the United States Colored Troops and its soldiers from Spotsylvania County. I was going to give a talk there about the USCT in March in support of the exhibit, and Roger informed me that I was the expert in the USCT history. Fortunately, this was right after John Hennessy and I did our talk with the churches in Fredericksburg, so I was a little prepared. I had to do much more research to become an expert on the USCT, though—which only means that you may know a little more than most people, but you still have to learn more everyday about the subject.
Once started, the 23rd was helped tremendously by the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. Our superintendent at the time, Russ Smith, wrote an editorial to the Washington Post introducing us to the Washington Metropolitan area. John Hennessy has presented numerous programs for us. Craig Johnson has provided law enforcement assistance for our Park programs. Greg Mertz, Frank O’Reilly, Eric Mink, Lucy Lawliss, Pete Maugle, Beth Parnicza, and Becky Oakes have contributed time, research information, participation, and program assistance for us. Tom Breen, former manager of the bookstores in the Park, provided valuable information to me with books and various Civil War discussions.
I also owe a special thank you to Noel Harrison. He and I worked on making an important correction in the story of the 23rd USCT. Initial information about the first skirmish of the 23rd USCT with the Army of Northern Virginia ended up being wrong. That first story had the 30th USCT fighting alongside the 23rd USCT, but it turns out Confederate Gen. Thomas Rosser’s cavalry was mixing up to separate incidents. The 23rd fought on May 15 and the 30th fought on May 19. We checked the Official Records and a couple of biographies in order to clarify the events.
We had our 150th Anniversary program on the Chancellorsville battlefield, then the Heflin family allowed us to have our Virginia state marker dedication ceremony on their farm, which happens to be the actual site of the 23rd’s skirmish with the Army of Northern Virginia. Now, the Chancellorsville Visitor Center has an exhibit about the 23rd USCT and their first skirmish, too.
Since 2012, we have been affiliated with the Trail to Freedom Committee. This committee is composed of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, Stafford Tourism, Spotsylvania Tourism, City of Fredericksburg, Women of the Civil War, Stafford Historical Society, the John J. Wright Museum, and the 23rd USCT. Our biggest programs were the Stafford 350th Anniversary program, which included the making of the movie The Spy Within, our first Trail to Freedom Symposium and Luncheon, and the opening of the Spotsylvania African American Heritage Trail.
Denise Benedetto, president of Women of the Civil War and Chairwoman of the Trail to Freedom Committee, along with her husband, Luigi, bring new media to the group and wrote and produced the movie. M.C. Moncure, former Stafford Tourism head, and Debbie Aylor, Spotsylvania Tourism head, have been very valuable in working with us at various events.
The 23rd has been well received throughout the Fredericksburg area.