JUNE TRAVEL HIGHLIGHTS

in St. Francisville, Louisiana

by Anne Butler

Saturday, June 14, marks The Day The War Stopped in the little 19th-century river town of St. Francisville, Louisiana, always touching but even more meaningful this year as the war in Iraq has put so many of our young soldiers in harm's way.  This is surely one of the most unusual and touching of Civil War re-enactments, commemorating the events of another hot June day in the year 1863, when a small procession trudged up the steep hill from the Mississippi River, sweating in the summer heat and staggering under the weight of a coffin.  The white flag of truce flew before them, and the guns of their federal gunboat, the USS Albatross, fell silent at anchor 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.

It was June 12, 1863, and ten miles south of St. Francisville 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 gain 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 Pt. Hudson bluffs from the river, but of his seven ships, only his flagship and the USS Albatross passed upriver safely, leaving ground troops to fight it out for nearly another month.

Commanding the Albatross was Lt. Commander John E. Hart of Schenectady, New York.  A young naval officer whose bravery in life was renown, Commander Hart would have even more lasting impact through his death, for after having shelled St. Francisville, Hart died by his own hand in a fit of delirium, perhaps brought on by yellow fever.  Hart was a Mason and had asked that his remains not be consigned to the river waters, so a delegation was sent from the Albatross to determine if there might be brother Masons in the town of St. Francisville. 

There they found one of the oldest Masonic lodges in the state, Feliciana Lodge No. 31 F and AM; its Grand Master was absent serving in the Confederacy, but its Senior Warden, W. W. Leake, was reportedly nearby, "his headquarters being in the saddle."  Leake was soon found and persuaded to honor the request for Masonic burial; as a soldier, Leake said, it was his duty to permit burial of deceased members of the armed forces of any government, and as a Mason it was his duty to accord Masonic burial to the remains of a brother Mason regardless of circumstances in the outside world.

And so Lt. Commander John Hart was laid to rest in the Masonic burial lot in the cemetery of Grace Episcopal Church, whose bell tower had made such a tempting target for his shells.  Episcopal services were conducted by the Reverend Mr. Daniel Lewis, rector of Grace, and respect was paid by Union and Confederate Masons alike.  And then the war resumed, with 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 of brotherhood, the war had stopped in St. Francisville, and this moment is to be re-enacted on June 14, 140 years later.  The celebration gets kicked off with an 11 a.m. Parade enlivened by bands, ROTC marchers and lots of Shriner "funny cars" and clowns, Lunch at noon at the Masonic Lodge, at 1:30 a moving Dramatic Presentation at Bishop Jackson Hall (Grace Church's parish hall) centering around Hart's young family in Schenectady, followed immediately by the mournful Procession from the Masonic Lodge across the street to Grace Church cemetery for the Re-enactment Of The Burial and then a unique presentation of related Graveside Histories.  At 3 p.m. the beautifully costumed Southern Vintage Dancers perform historic dances to period music in Jackson Hall, and an Ice Cream Social cools off the crowd under the spreading live oaks at 4 p.m., followed by a Vintage Music Concert in Jackson Hall at 4:30.  The concluding event of the day will be a drawing in Jackson Hall for numerous door prizes donated by participating merchants; visitors should visit the local shops to register (the more shops visited, the more chances to win), but they must be present at the drawing to win. 

All activities are in historic downtown St. Francisville, and all are open to the public.  Starring in the Dramatic Presentation, which depicts Commander Hart's wife reading his last letter to their young son just as the news of his death arrives, is talented former television personality Valerie Barnes, whose real-life husband serves as director and narrator of the moving production; other roles are assumed by Joe Savell as the Rev. Mr. Lewis and Shirley Ditloff as his wife.  In the Graveside Histories presentation, the role of W. W. Leake is taken by retired judge and former congressman John Rarick of the local Masonic lodge, and the role of Commander Hart is played by Frank Kawowski, past master of St. George's Lodge in Schenectady, N.Y., Hart's home lodge.

Beautiful Grace Episcopal Church, established in 1827 as the second oldest Episcopal congregation in the state, is a well-preserved brick structure reminiscent of Gothic country churches which dot the English countryside, and its peaceful oak-shaded cemetery where Commander Hart rests in peace is filled with fine statuary and Victorian monuments of marble and stone. 

It is just one of a number of historic churches and cemeteries in the St. Francisville area.  Just down Ferdinand St. is Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, completed in 1893 from plans drawn by Civil War hero General P.G.T. Beauregard.  On Royal St. in the midst of St. Francisville's historic district is United Methodist Church, built in 1899 with splendid simplicity of style. 

These historic churches welcome visitors all the time, as do outlying architectural jewels like tiny St. John's Episcopal Church at Laurel Hill, dating from 1873.  From LA 66 passersby can mourn the hauntingly beautiful St. Mary's Episcopal Church standing abandoned and crumbling in a cow pasture near Weyanoke; once a month services are held at St. John's, and once a year the congregation of Grace Church holds services amidst the ruins of St. Mary's.  In 1871 the first organized black congregation founded Afton Villa Baptist Church on lands donated by the mistress of that plantation, and the congregation meets there to this day.

There are quite a few historic cemeteries in the St. Francisville area as well, besides those surrounding existing church structures.  Locust Grove Cemetery, now a State Historic Site, is the final resting place of Sarah Knox Taylor Davis, first wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and daughter of U.S. President Zachary Taylor; she succumbed to yellow fever as a young bride while visiting relatives on Davis' sister's plantation.   Hebrew Rest provides a shady burial spot for many members of the important early Jewish community of St. Francisville. 

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, with six historic plantations-Rosedown and Audubon (Oakley Plantation) State Historic Sites, Butler Greenwood, the Myrtles, the Cottage and Greenwood--open for daily tours, Catalpa Plantation open by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens open seasonally.   The state historic sites offer living history demonstrations periodically.  Reasonably priced meals are available in a nice array of restaurants in St. Francisville, eclectic shops fill restored 19th-century structures throughout the historic downtown area, and some of the state's best Bed and Breakfasts offer overnight accommodations ranging from golf clubs and lakeside resorts to historic townhouses and country plantations; a modern motel has facilities to accommodate busloads.  The scenic unspoiled Tunica Hills region surrounding St. Francisville offers excellent biking, hiking, fishing, birding, horseback riding and other recreational activities. 

For online coverage of tourist facilities, attractions and events in the St. Francisville area, see www.stfrancisville.us, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisvilleovernight.com, or telephone (225) 635-3873 or 635-6330.  For information on The Day The War Stopped, see www.daythewarstopped.com.

 

St. Francisville Overnight Town of St. Francisville Audubon Spring Pilgrimage
Audubon Country BirdFest WFP Tourism Website Feliciana Guide Post