Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Day The War Stopped

The Day The War Stopped
In  St. Francisville, LA

By Anne Butler
Day the War StoppedThe bonds of brotherhood, those Masonic ties that bind stronger than anything on the outside, saved many a plantation house in south Louisiana during the Civil War---among them, Chretien Point Plantation in Sunset, where ailing elderly Hypolite Landry III drug himself from his sickbed onto the upper gallery and flashed the sign that made General Nathaniel Banks recall the Yankee troops about to destroy the home; and Madewood near Thibodaux, where widowed Eliza Pugh, mother of 15 children, saved the plantation from destruction by appealing to the Union general’s Masonic ties to her late husband.

Nowhere is this celebrated more movingly than St. Francisville’s annual Civil War re-enactment, this year June 12, 13 and 14th. Preserving a moment of civility in the midst of a bloody war, this is a re-enactment that celebrates not a battle but the bonds of brotherhood that proved stronger even than the divisiveness of a bitter civil conflict. They call it 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.

AlbatrossThe 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.

He 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 Feliciana Lodge No. 31 F&AM, 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.

Burial sceneThe commemorative events begin on Friday, June 12, 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 historical presentation at the double-galleried Masonic Lodge just across Ferdinand St. from the graveyard follows at 8 p.m. Friday evening.

On Saturday, June 13, visitors will be pleasantly transported back in time at Grace Church’s Bishop Jackson Hall from 10:30 to 11:30 as a concert of antebellum period music is followed from 11:30 to 12:30 by a graceful demonstration of vintage dancing. Lunch is served at the Masonic Lodge from 11:30 to 12:30, with a historical talk from 12:30 to 1.

At 1:00 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. Representatives of Commander Hart’s New York Masonic lodge travel south every year to participate in the re-enactment with local Masons, and some years there are actually descendants of the original participants involved.

Day the War Stopped 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 dances popular during the Civil War period, and the house opens for special evening tours from 6 to 8 p.m. On Sunday, June 14, Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site has a special exhibit on Civil War 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. For information on weekend activities as well as overnight accommodations and area attractions, visit online, or; telephone 225-635-4224, 225-635-3873 or 225-635-4791.

Another memorable June event is the second annual Walker Percy Festival June 5, 6 and 7th, celebrating the acclaimed novelist’s life and work with good food, craft beer and bourbon, boiled crawfish, live music and a great time discussing books and southern culture under the moss-hung live oaks. Proceeds benefit the Freyhan Foundation’s ongoing efforts to restore the area’s first public school building for use as a community cultural center. Lectures and panel discussions, readings and films, progressive front-porch bourbon sipping, twilight cocktails in the ruins garden of one former Percy plantation home and other guided tours of area sites readers of Percy’s works will recognize. For information:

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: the Cottage Plantation, Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season and are both spectacular in springtime. 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 periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Sunday and Monday).

The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice 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 225-6330 or 225-635-4224; online visit, or (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).