Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Day the War Stopped


- in St. Francisville, Louisiana

by Anne Butler

Up the steep hill they trudged, sweating in the sticky June heat, staggering
under the weight of the coffin, the white flag of truce flying before them in
the hot summer sun. The guns of their federal gunboat, the USS Albatross, anchored in the Mississippi off Bayou Sara, were silent 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, and the lovely little rivertown of St. Francisville invites the public to join in commemorating the events 145 years ago on the weekend of June 13-15.

In June 1863, 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 wrest from them 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 bluffs from the river, but of his seven ships, four were turned
back, one was completely destroyed, and only his flagship and the USS Albatross passed upriver safely, leaving ground troops to fight it out for nearly another month.

Lt. Commander John E. Hart, the federal commander of the Albatross, had just the week before posted a touching letter to his wife, left behind with their young son Elliott in Schenectady, New York. Praising his little boat for getting through the fearsome firing from the batteries atop the bluffs at Port Hudson, Commander Hart promises after the war to take his wife on a trip down the river to see the famous battlefields. As he writes he can hear the cannons booming
to the south, but his attentions are on more immediate matters…how many blackberries his crew have had to eat lately, and how when a “jolly good cow” is spotted, he sends a sailor ashore with a pail, chuckling how some rebel farm folk will be surprised when “old Brindle comes home at night
and ain’t got no milk for them”…how hot it is, and how long since he has seen ice, and how he would love a glass of cool claret and water.

Even in the midst of war, there
are mundane little touches of life scattered through the letter from Hart to his beloved wife…the mockingbirds singing around the boat, the little
puppy he’d put ashore at Plaquemine to be raised, the shipboard litter of kittens. After perilously running through the Grand Gulf batteries on the river to the north, Hart writes that the Admiral signalled, “How many killed?” And he answered none. The Admiral signalled, “How many wounded?” And he answered none. And just then Kitty, ship’s mouser, produced kittens which Hart insisted become part of the official report…important to note the wartime births as well as the all-too-frequent deaths.

A respected naval officer, Commander Hart would have even more lasting impact
through his death, which occurred as the Albatross lay at anchor near Bayou
Sara, just below St. Francisville. Masonic and naval records list Hart as having
“suicided,” died by his own hand “in a fit of delirium.” It had been surmised that perhaps he suffered from dementia induced by yellow fever, for a mere four days earlier his cheerful letter home hardly seemed to exhibit despair, but the surgeon’s log implicates debilitating dyspepsia,
perhaps combined with depression.

Hart was a Mason, and aboard his ship were other officers also “members of the Craft,” desirous of burying their commander ashore rather than consigning the remains to the river waters. A boat was sent from the Albatross under flag of truce to ascertain if there were any Masons in the town of St. Francisville. It just so happened that the two White brothers living near the river were Masons, and they informed the little delegation that there was indeed a Masonic lodge in the town, in fact one of the oldest in the state, Feliciana Lodge No. 31 F and AM. Its Grand Master was absent, serving in the Confederate Army, and its Senior Warden, W. W. Leake, was likewise engaged. But, according to Masonic correspondence, “Brother Leake’s headquarters were in the saddle,” he was reported to be in the vicinity, and he was soon found and persuaded to honor the request. As a soldier, Leake reportedly said, he considered it his duty to permit burial of a deceased member of the armed forces of any government, even one presently at war with his own, and as a Mason, he knew it to be his duty to accord Masonic burial to the remains of a brother Mason without taking into account the nature of their relations in the outer

The surgeon and officers of the USS Albatross, struggling up from the river with Hart’s body, were met by W. W. Leake, the White brothers, and a few other members of the Masonic lodge. In the procession was also a squad of Marines at trail arms. They were met at Grace Episcopal Church by the Reverend Mr. Daniel Lewis, rector, and
with full Episcopal and Masonic services, Commander John E. Hart was laid to rest in the Masonic burial plot in Grace’s peaceful cemetery, respect being paid by Union and Confederate soldiers alike. And soon the war resumed, 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, the war had stopped at St. Francisville, and this moment will be marked the weekend of June 13, 14 and 15th. The commemorative events begin on Friday, June 13, at 7 p.m., with graveside histories in the
peaceful oak-shaded cemetery at Grace Church, and an important presentation by Professor Chris Pena of Nicholls State University. A widely recognized Civil War researcher and author, Professor Pena has delved deeply into the events surrounding.

The Day The War Stopped and will provide fascinating newly unearthed details regarding Commander Hart’s death and St. Francisville’s role in the war. His talk will be followed by an Open House and presentation of lodge history at the historic double-galleried Masonic Lodge just across Ferdinand St. from the graveyard at 8 p.m.

On Saturday, June 14, a lively parade travels along St. Francisville’s historic main street beginning at 10:30 a.m., followed by lunch at the Masonic Lodge from 11 to 12:30. Visitors will be pleasantly transported back in time during the afternoon, as Grace Church and its parish hall next door are the scene of a concert of antebellum period music and vintage dancing from 11:30
to 1:30. At 1:30 commences the very moving dramatic presentation showing Commander
Hart’s young wife in New York as she reads his last letter to their small son and then receives the terrible news of his death. This is followed by the re-enactment of the burial of Hart, with re-enactors in the dignified rites clad in Civil War uniforms accurate down to the last button and worn brogan. Taking leading roles in this ritual, amazingly, are W.W.Leake’s great-great-grandson Robert S. Leake, as well as Frank Karwowski, member of Commander Hart’s
Masonic lodge, St. George’s in Schnectady, New York, and Shirley Ditloff who now operates a popular B&B in W.W. Leake’s Royal St. townhouse.

During the afternoon on Saturday, Oakley Plantation in the Audubon State Historic Site offers special related programs, including a Civil War encampment, complete with tents and authentically clad re-enactors, which may be visited from 2:30 to 5. At 3 a lecture on the history of the Civil War in West Feliciana will be presented, followed by black powder and musket demonstrations at 3:30 and at 4 a demonstration of Civil War costumes.

On Sunday, June 15, Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site from 1 to 3 presents a program on Civil War medical techniques and their all-too-often conclusion, period burial customs. At nearby Locust Grove State Historic Site, a talk from 1 to 3 focuses on Jefferson Davis’ young bride, Sarah Knox Taylor Davis
who succumbed to yellow fever on their honeymoon visit to his sister’s plantation in West Feliciana, at her gravesite, and a gravestone rendering class will utilize some of the historic headstones in this peaceful little graveyard.
All of these activities are free and open to the public.Among sponsors are St. Francisville Overnight! (Bed & Breakfasts of the area), the Feliciana Lodge No. 31 F and AM, Grace Episcopal Church, and St. Francisville Main Street.

Visitors will find fascinating little shops and restaurants, many of them located
in restored 19th-century structures, throughout downtown St. Francisville, which boasts an extensive Historic District listed on the National Register, and a wonderful assortment of Bed & Breakfasts as well as a modern motel. Six
restored historic plantations are open daily for tours—Rosedown Plantation and Audubon State Historic Sites, Butler Greenwood Plantation, The Cottage Plantation, Greenwood Plantation and The Myrtles; Catalpa Plantation is open by reservation, and Afton Villa Gardens is open seasonally. The surrounding Tunica Hills region offers a wide array of recreational opportunities, from birding and biking to horseback riding and hiking.

For additional information on the St. Francisville area, telephone 225-635-4224,
225-635-3873 or 225-635-6330; online http://www.stfrancisville.net/. For additional
information on The Day The War Stopped, see http://www.daythewarstopped.net/.