Sunday, May 13, 2007

War Stopped

in St. Francisville, Louisiana

by Anne Butler

One Saturday in June each year marks The Day The War Stopped in the little 19th-century river town of St. Francisville, Louisiana, and in 2007 the dates of this commemoration are Friday, June 15, through Sunday, June 17. This is surely one of the most unusual and touching of Civil War re-enactments, commemorating
the events of another hot June day in the year 1863, when a small procession trudged up the steep hill from the Mississippi River, sweating in the summer
heat and staggering under the weight of a coffin. The white flag of truce flew before them, and the guns of their federal gunboat, the USS Albatross, fell silent at anchor behind them as the ship's surgeon and two officers struggled toward St. Francisville atop the hill.

The procession was not an impressive one, certainly not an unusual event in the midst of a bloody war, and it would no doubt have escaped all notice but for one fact--this was the day the war stopped, if only for a few mournful moments.
It was June 12, 1863, and ten miles south of St. Francisville the Siege of
Port Hudson was pitting 30,000 Union troops under Major General Nathaniel P. Banks against 6,800 weary Confederates under Major General Franklin Gardner, fighting over the all-important control of traffic on the Mississippi River.
Port Hudson and Vicksburg were the only Rebel strongholds left along the Mississippi, and if the Union forces could gain control of the river traffic, they could cut off supplies from the West and completely surround the Confederacy. Admiral David Farragut had attempted to destroy Confederate cannons atop the Pt. Hudson bluffs from the river, but of his seven ships, only his flagship and the USS Albatross passed upriver safely, leaving ground troops to fight it out for nearly another month.

Commanding the Albatross was Lt. Commander John Elliot Hart of Schenectady,
New York, the early gateway to the West. Born in 1825, Hart at age 16 was appointed a midshipman in the US Navy and in 1848 graduated from the US Naval School at Annapolis. He served on the frigate Constitution during the Mexican War, and in 1862 was assigned command of the small steamer Albatross as part of the Farragut’s squadron. If his bravery in life was renown, Commander Hart would have even more lasting impact through his death, for after having shelled St. Francisville, Hart “suicided,” died by his own hand in a fit of delirium, perhaps brought on by yellow fever. Hart was a Mason and had asked that his remains not be consigned to the river waters, so a delegation was sent from the Albatross to determine if there might be brother Masons in the town of St. Francisville.
There they found one of the oldest Masonic lodges in the state, Feliciana Lodge No. 31 F and AM; its Grand Master was absent serving in the Confederacy, but its Senior Warden, W. W. Leake,
was reportedly nearby, his home being in the direct line of fire from
the river but "his headquarters being in the saddle.” Leake
was soon found and persuaded to honor the request for Masonic burial; as a soldier, Leake said, it was his duty to permit burial of deceased members of the armed forces of any government, and as a Mason it was his duty to accord Masonic burial to the remains of a brother Mason regardless of circumstances in the outside world.

And so Lt. Commander John Hart was laid to rest in the Masonic burial lot in the cemetery of Grace Episcopal Church, whose bell tower had made such a tempting target for his shells. Episcopal services were conducted by the Reverend Mr. Daniel Lewis, rector of Grace, and respect was paid by
Union and Confederate Masons alike. And then the war resumed, with Lee's northern invasion turned back at Gettysburg July 3, Vicksburg falling July 4, and Port Hudson finally surrendering July 9, all in one catastrophic week.

But for one brief touching moment of brotherhood, the war had stopped in St. Francisville, and this moment is re-enacted one weekend each June. The commemoration opens Friday evening, June 15, at 7 p.m. with a presentation of graveside histories in the oak-shaded cemetery at Grace Episcopal Church, where the graceful monuments date from the 1800’s and bespeak several centuries of life and death in the community. This will be followed by an open house and tour across the street at the Masonic Lodge at 7:30 p.m.; the highlight of the program here will be the presentation of a
short history of the Masonic Order, sure to be of interest to members of the general public, and the introduction of this year’s very special guests, direct descendants of both Hart and Leake families, who will meet each other for the first time. Representing Lt. Commander Hart will be his great-great-granddaughter Mary Servais, her husband Mike and three children, Andy, Elliot and Maggie. Representing W.W. Leake will be his great-great-grandson Robert Shands Leake of Baton Rouge, great-great-great-grandson Navy Lt. Commander Robert Timothy Leake, and yet another W.W. Leake from Colorado Springs.

On Saturday, June 16, downtown St. Francisville’s main street is
the locale for a lively parade beginning at 10:30 a.m., with the honored
guests riding in special conveyances and the Shriners in their popular
“funny cars” giving onlookers a thrill. Lunch is served at the Masonic Lodge from 11 to 12:30. A concert of vintage music is presented
from 11:30 to 12:30 at Grace Episcopal Church’s Jackson Hall, followed
by period dancing by beautifully costumed performers from 12:30 to 1:30.
From 1:30 to 2:30, a touching
dramatic presentation focuses on Hart's young family in Schenectady. The drama centers around Commander Hart’s wife Harriet Emeline Van Vorst, whom he married in 1855 in St. George’s Episcopal Church in Schenectady.
She is introduced reading her husband’s last cheerful letter to
their young son Elliot, a missive filled with chatty news of blackberry
picking and kittens delivered by the ship’s mouser, just as the
news of his death arrives, delivered by Mrs. Hart’s father, the
mayor of Schenectady and Master of St. George’s Lodge, which received
its warrant in 1774. The play is followed immediately in Grace Church
cemetery by the re-enactment of the burial. The role of W.W. Leake of
St. Francisville, who survived the war to become Master of Feliciana Lodge, will be played by his great-great-grandson, while the Schenectady Masons will be represented by Francis Kawowski, PM, of St. George’s Lodge. Beautiful Grace Episcopal Church, established in 1827 as the second oldest Episcopal congregation in the state, is a well-preserved brick structure reminiscent of Gothic country churches which dot the English countryside, and its peaceful oak-shaded cemetery where Commander Hart rests in peace is filled with fine statuary and Victorian monuments of marble and stone. Hart’s grave is marked by a monument dedicated “in loving tribute to the universality of Free Masonry.”

These activities are all in historic downtown St. Francisville, and all are
open to the public. The commemoration of The Day The War Stopped spills over to several outlying sites as well. Oakley Plantation of Audubon State Historic Site, where flamboyant artist-naturalist John James Audubon tutored the young daughter of the family while painting many of his Birds of America studies, brings to life the war years for visitors with authentic costumes and Civil War encampments, lectures on the war in this particular area, and black powder and musket demonstrations on Saturday, June 16, from 2:30 to 5 p.m. At Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site on Sunday, June 17, from 1 to 3 p.m., demonstrations
explain Civil War medical techniques and their far-too-oft conclusion: burial customs. Other activities are held at nearby Locust Grove Cemetery, another state historic site and final resting place of Sarah Knox Taylor Davis, first wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and daughter of U.S. President Zachary Taylor, who succumbed to yellow fever as a young bride while visiting relatives on Davis' sister's plantation, Locust Grove; on Sunday from 1 to 3, this peaceful little graveyard is the site of a talk on Sarah Knox Taylor Davis as well as a class on gravestone renderings.

Details on the annual Day The
War Stopped in St. Francisville, Louisiana, may be obtained online at

Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination,
with six historic plantations-Rosedown and Audubon (Oakley Plantation) State
Historic Sites, Butler Greenwood, the Myrtles, the Cottage and Greenwood--open for daily tours, Catalpa Plantation open by reservation and magnificent Afton Villa Gardens open seasonally. Reasonably priced meals are available in a nice array of restaurants in St. Francisville, eclectic shops fill restored 19th-century structures throughout the historic downtown area, and some of the state's best Bed and Breakfasts offer overnight accommodations ranging from golf clubs and lakeside resorts to historic townhouses and country plantations; a modern motel has facilities to accommodate busloads. The scenic unspoiled Tunica Hills region
surrounding St. Francisville offers excellent biking, hiking, fishing, birding,
horseback riding and other recreational activities. For online coverage of tourist facilities, attractions and events in the St. Francisville area, see, or, or telephone (225)
635-6330 or 635-3873.

Photographs, including high-resolution pictures, available upon request from