Tuesday, April 02, 2013


By Anne Butler

Rarick at Day the War StoppedAs communities across the country mark the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the observance in the quaint little rivertown of St. Francisville, LA, will not celebrate a victory in battle or commemorate a heart-wrenching defeat. Rather, St. Francisville’s observation of events 150 years past preserves a moment of civility in the midst of a bloody war, and the bonds of brotherhood that proved stronger even than the divisiveness of a bitter civil conflict pitting brother against brother. St. Francisville’s observance June 7, 8 and 9th is called The Day The War Stopped, and that is exactly what happened, at least for a little while.

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 Albatross was patrolling the Mississippi River off the port city of Bayou Sara just below St. Francisville when a single shot rang out from the captain’s stateroom. It was 4:15 p.m. on June 11, and the vessel’s commander, John Elliot Hart of Schenectady, New York, lay mortally wounded on the floor, his pistol beside his body and a note detailing his despondency over his sufferings from dyspepsia. Attempts to find a metal coffin in which to ship his body home proved futile, and so the ship’s surgeon went ashore in hopes of making arrangements for burial on land.

day the war stoppedHe was a Mason; Commander Hart was also a Mason. Living near the river he found several helpful brothers named White who were also Masons, and in St. Francisville was the second oldest Masonic Lodge in the state, its senior warden a Confederate cavalry officer who happened to be at home on furlough. It would be his duty, this Confederate officer felt, to afford a decent burial to a fellow Mason and fellow military officer, regardless of politics. And so the war stopped, if only for a few mournful moments.

The commemorative events begin on Friday, June 7, 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 lie the Reverend Dr. Daniel Lewis, Episcopal rector who presided at the burial, and W.W. Leake, the 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.

Funeral - Day the War StoppedAt 10 on Saturday morning, June 8, a lively parade processes through St. Francisville’s downtown Historic District, after which lunch is served from 11:30 to 12:30.

Visitors will be pleasantly transported back in time during the afternoon at Grace Church’s Bishop Jackson Hall from 11:30 to 1:30 as a concert of antebellum period music is followed by a graceful demonstration of vintage dancing. 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. A representative of Commander Hart’s New York Masonic lodge travels south every year to participate in the re-enactment with local Masons, and some years there are actually descendants of the original participants involved.

Funeral in St. Francisville, La.On Saturday evening from 6 to 8:30 p.m., 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., with all three floors filled with costumed living historians demonstrating what life was like during the trying 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 cared for 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.

Union SoldierOn Sunday, June 9, 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, 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; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are spectacular. 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 ethnic cuisine to 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.daythewarstopped.com, 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 and the twice weekly Farmers Markets on Thurdays and Saturdays) or www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com.