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 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. This touching moment will be marked the weekend of June 10, 11 and 12, in St. Francisville, Louisiana, where it all took place.
In June 1863, the bloody 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.
The commemorative events begin on Friday, June 10, at 7 p.m. in St. Francisville, with graveside histories in the peaceful oak-shaded cemetery at historic Grace Episcopal Church, where several participants in the original event lie buried---the grave of the Albatross’ commander John E. Hart, whose burial stopped the war and united fellow Masons in both blue and grey, is marked by a marble slab and monument “in loving tribute to the universality of Free Masonry,” while nearby lies W.W. Leake, local Masonic leader and Confederate cavalry officer who expedited Hart’s burial. 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 11, a lively parade travels along St. Francisville’s historic main street beginning at 11 a.m., followed by lunch at the Masonic Lodge from 11:30 to 12:30. Visitors will be pleasantly transported back in time during the afternoon at the nearby United Methodist Church hall by a graceful demonstration of vintage dancing from 12:30 to 1:30. At 1:30 commences the 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 burial of Hart in Grace Church cemetery, with re-enactors in the dignified rites clad in Union and Confederate Civil War uniforms accurate down to the last button and worn brogan.
On Saturday evening from 6 to 8:30 PM, at Oakley Plantation (Audubon State Historic Site), brilliantly costumed vintage dancers will perform stylish dances popular during the Civil War period in the museum theater, encouraging participants to join in and learn the steps. Oakley House, which is never lovelier than by candlelight, opens for special evening tours from 6 to 8 p.m. This year all three floors of Oakley will be filled with costumed living historians demonstrating what life was like during the Civil War years for civilians and soldiers on both sides of the conflict. A picket will greet guests at the entrance in full military uniform. In the dining room the discussion will be about wartime shortages of foodstuffs as ladies converse over their ersatz coffee made from okra, and other ladies will be attending to their mending in the hallway as they make sure the solders’ uniforms have all the buttons sewed on. Convalescent soldiers are attended to in the office, and the little drummer boy waits anxiously in the bedroom to go off to war. In another bedroom, as his anxious wife looks on, a gentleman dons his uniform and packs his gear into a haversack. Confederate headquarters in the library will be the scene of discussions of the nearby bloody Siege of Port Hudson, while in Audubon’s room foraging soldiers confiscate civilian goods for the military, candles, for example, and much-needed food.
On Sunday, June 12, 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.
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, United Methodist Church, and St. Francisville Main Street.
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. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are 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, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from soul food to Chinese and Mexican cuisine, seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & 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 gives dates and information on special activities, including the lively monthly third Saturday morning Community Market Day in Parker Park) or www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com.