|by Anne Butler|
Up the steep hill they trudged, sweating in the sticky June heat, staggering under the weight of the simple wooden 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 a small party of 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 147 years ago on the weekend of June 11-13.
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 and graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Commander Hart would have even more lasting impact through his death, which occurred at 4:15 p.m. on June 11, 1863, in the captain’s stateroom as the Albatross patrolled the waters of the Mississippi River 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. The note left behind by the commander, in those days before antacids and little purple pills to ease the pain of gastric reflux disease, lamented, “God knows my suffering.”
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, especially since a metallic coffin which might have contained the body for safe shipment home to New York could not be found. 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, Samuel and Benjamin, living near the river were Masons from Indiana. 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, but its Senior Warden, W. W. Leake, whose “headquarters were in the saddle,” was home on furlough and was soon 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 world
The surgeon and officers of the USS Albatross, struggling up from the river with Hart’s body followed by a squad of Marines at trail arms, were met by W. W. Leake, the White brothers, and a few other members of the Masonic lodge. They were greeted at Grace Episcopal Church by the Reverend Mr. Daniel S. Lewis, rector, and with full Episcopal and Masonic services, Commander John E. Hart was laid to rest on June 12, 1863, 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 11, 12 and 13. The commemorative events begin on Friday, June 11, at 7 p.m., with graveside histories in the peaceful oak-shaded cemetery at Grace Church, where Commander Hart’s grave is marked by a marble slab and monument “in loving tribute to the universality of Free Masonry.” Over the years it was decorated with flowers by members of the Daughters of the Confederacy. W.W. Leake in 1912 was buried nearby after a long and honorable career as state senator, parish judge and bank president. An Open House and presentation of lodge history at the double-galleried Masonic Lodge just across Ferdinand St. from the graveyard follows at 8 p.m. Friday evening.
On Saturday, June 12, a lively parade travels along St. Francisville’s historic main street beginning at 11 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’s parish hall is the setting for a concert of antebellum period music and graceful 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, plus black powder and musket demonstrations from 2:30 to 5. From 6 to 8 p.m. costumed dancers perform stylish dances popular during the Civil War period, and Oakley House, which is never lovelier than by candlelight, opens for special evening tours.
On Sunday, June 13, 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 Oakley, a 1 p.m. talk focuses on Jefferson Davis’ young bride, Sarah Knox Taylor Davis, daughter of President Zachary Taylor, who succumbed to yellow fever on their honeymoon visit to his sister’s plantation in West Feliciana. This will be followed by a Civil War demonstration from 2 to 4 p.m.
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.
The St. Francisville area features a number of splendidly restored plantation homes open for tours daily: The Cottage Plantation, Butler Greenwood Plantation, The Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens seasonally. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer fascinating living-history demonstrations most weekends to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs. The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, horseback riding with rental mounts from Cross Creek Stables. There are unique specialty shops, many in restored historic structures, and some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed and Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-635-4224; online visit www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar for June gives dates and information on special activities, including the monthly third Saturday morning Community Market Day in Parker Park) or www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com. For additional information and a complete, updated schedule for The Day The War Stopped, see www.daythewarstopped.net.