The Day the War Stopped
St. Francisville, Louisiana
An 1863 re-enactment
Day the War Stopped
Widow Hart
Photo Essay - June 3rd, 2000

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Once a year St. Francisville re-enacts a historic event in the history of the Civil War between the States. This year the event was held on June 3, 2000. Here is the story behind this historic event:
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, fell silent 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 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 all-important control of traffic on the Mississippi River. Port Hudson and P 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 form the west and completely surround the Confederacy. Admiral David Farragot 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 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 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 signaled, " "How many killed?" And he answered none, "The Admiral signaled, "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   valiant naval office whose skill and bravery were renown, Commander Hart would have even more lasting impact though his death, which occurred as the Albatross lay at anchor near Bayou Sara, having shelled both that low-lying port settlement and the city of St. Francisville atop the bluffs. Masonic and Naval records list Hart as having "suicided," died by his own hand "in a fit of delirium" perhaps he suffered from dementia induced by yellow fever, for a mere four days earlier he had certainly exhibited no depression or despair in his letter home. At any rate, Hart most certainly died.
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. A boat was sent from the Albatross under flag under flag of truce to ascertain if there were any Masons in the town of St. Francisville. Now it just so happened that the two White brothers living near the river were Masons, and 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, and its Senior Warden, W.W. Leake, was likewise engaged. But, according to Masonic correspondence, "Brother Leake's headquarters were in the saddle," he was reported to be in the vicinity, and he was soon found and 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, were met by W.W. Leake, the White brothers, a few other members of the Masonic lodge. In the procession was also a squad of Marines at trail arms. They were met at Grace Episcopal Church by the Reverend Mr. Lewis, rector, and with full Episcopal and Masonic services, Commander John E. Hart was laid to test in the Masonic burial lot 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 was re-enacted this year on Saturday, June 3rd, 2000.

 

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