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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

An Act of Masonic Brotherhood That Still Unites


 One of the principle tenants of Freemasonry is that of Brotherly Love.  We take an obligation to treat each other as equals, with respect, Brotherly Love and understanding and to aid each other in times of need.  When we do this, it so much more than merely fulfilling an obligation to our Brothers.  It not only shows the unity and support for each other as Freemasons, it also feels good to aid each other in times of need knowing that we have done a good deed, and it sets a shining example of the good that Freemasonry is capable of achieving.  When the general public can see these great acts of Brotherly Love it can have a beneficial effect not only on our Craft but to the people of the local communities where these acts take place.  Examples of this happen often all over the world, but I have had the blessing of researching what I feel is one of the strongest and best examples of not only Brotherly Love but also a fine example of a community that gathers together to celebrate and comemorate the occasion annually.

          It all starts with a man named John Elliott Hart.  Hart was born on April 4, 1824   in New York City, where his family had resided since the early 1600's.  His family had a long proud history of not only being Navy men but Freemason's as well.  There is not a whole lot known about John Hart's early years aside from the fact that he enlisted in the Navy at the age of seventeen in 1841.  In 1846  John Hart had attended the newly formed United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland and had graduated the Academy in 1848.  By 1855 he had moved to Schenectady, New York and married Harriet Emeline Van Vorst whose father was not only the Mayor of Schenectady but the Master of St. George's Lodge #6.  John Hart became a Freemason in St. George's Lodge #6 in 1857 and later in 1858 he became a Royal Arch Companion in Mowhawk Chapter #157 which later changed its name to St. George's Chapter.

          During the Civil War Hart was fighting for the Union aboard a number of Naval vessels and eventually ended up as the Captain of the U.S.S. Albatross on October 29, 1862 while assuming the rank of Lieutenant Commander.  Hart and the Albatross where involved in a number of raids off the coast of Florida during November and December of 1862 before departing for the Mississippi River where New Orleans and Baton Rouge had already fallen to Union forces, the only two places remaining before the Union had complete control of the river were Port Hudson, which was fifteen miles upstream from Baton Rouge, and Vicksburg another one hundred and ten miles further upstream. 

          While the Albatross was on patrol north of Port Hudson between June 1, and June 11, 1863 there was not a whole lot of action going on with the exception of one skirmish with a Confederate battery at Port Hudson between those dates.  When the Albatross broke away from the skirmish at Port Hudson on June 11, 1863 she sailed north and arrived at Bayou Sara.  It was quite an uneventful stay, that is until approximately 4:15 pm when a single gunshot was heard coming from Lieutenant Commander John E. Hart's stateroom aboard the Albatross.  Hart, sadly had taken his own life as a result of suffering from depression and a very high fever that left him delirious for several days.  Prior to his death while contemplating about his own demise Hart wrote "If something should happen to me I asked that my fellow Masons aboard to bury me with Masonic services.  I know that Theodore Dubois will comply with my request; he is a good officer as well as a true Mason. He will find a Masonic Lodge; there is that one in St. Francisville."¹  Theodore Dubois was second in command of the U.S.S. Albatross and also a Master Mason. 

           Dubois' original plan was to procure an airtight metallic coffin so that John Hart's remains could be sent back to Schenectady for proper burial.  Since there was not one to be found and not wanting to cast his remains into the Mississippi it was decided while the Albatross was still anchored at Bayou Sara, which then was a Port town on the river close to St.Francisville before being wiped out by flooding in the twentieth century, that Dubois would go ashore to investigate if there were any Mason's in town and if they would be agreeable to a proper burial of Hart.   

           St. Francisville which sits atop a bluff just a stones throw from Bayou Sara was riddled with damage from the fighting courtesy of the Union forces.  Dubois and a small group of Union soldiers went ashore under a flag of truce in the early morning of June 12 to see to the duties of Hart's burial.  At the foot of the bluff lived two brothers, Samuel and Benjamin White, both Masons from Indiana that were familiar with Feliciana Lodge # 31 of St. Francisville.  The White Brothers had informed Dubois and his party that the Master of the Lodge, S.J. Powell was absent from the area serving in the Confederate Army.  The Senior Warden, Brother William Walter Leake was in the area on furlough and the White Brothers agreed to locate and communicate to him the wishes of Dubois as to Hart's burial.

          William Walter Leake, born in West Feliciana Parish on April 22, 1833 where he called home until his death on January 20, 1912 after a good and devoted life, a Freemason of fifty eight years, a Royal Arch Mason, he had also served as a Grand Lodge officer and many other community services he devoted himself to in his life.  A Lawyer in his civilian life, although at the time of Hart's death in June of 1863 he was serving as a Captain in the State Guard, Louisiana Calvary of the Confederate Forces.  When the White Brothers had located Leake and informed him of Dubois' request and that Hart was vouched for as a Freemason, Leake without hesitation agreed and accepted the responsibility for the Masonic funeral and burial of John Elliott Hart.  He stated to the White Brothers, " as a Mason it is my duty to accord Masonic burial to a Brother Mason without taking into account the nature of our relations outside Masonry.  Go tell the Union officer to bring his Captain ashore.  There are a few Mason's in town; I shall find all I can.  You two are Mason's.  I shall want you at the funeral service."²  It did not matter to him that during those current times that Hart was the enemy, because first and foremost he was a Brother.

          Under a flag of truce from both sides of the War, on Friday, June 12, 1863 at the Cemetery of Grace Episcopal Church, St. Francisville Louisiana, riddled with damage from Union Forces, the earthly remains of Lt. Commander and Brother John Elliott Hart were laid to rest by fellow Mason's.  This day was noted as, and is still referred to today as " The Day The War Stopped" because in this little town the war certainly did stop being fought for just one day because of this event during a long and bloody Civil War between the States. W.W. Leake, for the rest of his long and distinguished life made sure that Hart's grave was cared for.  After Leake passed in 1912, the Daughters of the Confederacy continued to care for Hart's grave.  William Walter Leake was laid to rest mere feet from John Elliott Hart in the Grace Episcopal Church Cemetary where they both remain together as Brothers in life and also in death.  On January 8, 1956, the Grand Lodge of Louisiana erected a stone monument that lays over the grave of Hart with both men's names and a brief history of their connection inscribed on it. 

          Since 1998 the people of West Feliciana Parish and the town of St. Francisville, along with a member of St. George's Lodge # 6, Schenectady, New York, where Hart was a member so many years ago have annually held a celebration and commemoration of this event that happened so many years ago.  The three day weekend each June is full of a number of events, from a range of wonderful groups among the community.  The Louisiana Vintage Dancers put on a vintage music concert and performance with time period correct music, dress and dance, the Louisiana State Historic Sites and Parks have Civil War dancers, Civil War demonstrations and in 2012 a candlelight tour of the Oakley Plantation an Audubon State Historic Site, and other scenes of the Civil War in St. Francisville.  Feliciana Masonic Lodge # 31 puts on graveside histories, historical presentations at the lodge, a parade, a lunch open to the public as well as the drama and reenactment of the burial of John Hart. The 2013 event will be the susqicentennial of the original event of  true Masonic Brotherhood, and is planned to be bigger and better than ever.  For more information on the 2013 events please visit www.daythewarstopped.net or call (225)-635-4791, you can also go to www.stfrancisville.us to contact the West Feliciana tourist commission.

          All of this is the consequence of an exemplary act of Masonic Brotherhood, two Lodge's are now tied together, a community comes together and it is all due to the Masonry that makes us better men!

 

 

 

FOOTNOTES:

¹ Lt. Cmdr. John Elliott Hart: by Francis I. Karwowski. The Day The War Stopped, pg 28.  A reenactment of the 1863 burial of Union Commander John Hart. © 2008  A booklet made possible through a grant from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

 

² Still a Brother: The Yankee Grave That Dixie Decorates, Francis I. Karwowski, from www.stgeorgeslodge.org/hart.html

 

 

SOURCES:

Francis I. Karwowski, St. Georges Lodge #6- personal communication

 

Paul Martin, Feliciana Lodge #31- personal communication

 

Shirley Dittloff, Committee on The Day the War Stopped- personal communication

 

West Feliciana Tourist Commision- personal communication

 

The Mystic Tie by Allen E. Roberts, © 1991 published by Macoy Publishing and Masonic Supply Inc. ISBN-0-88053-086-3

 

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Michael A. Halleran, © 2010 published by The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, Alabama 35487- 0380 ISBN- 978-0-8173-1695-2

 

House Undivided by Allen E. Roberts © 1961,1990 published by Macoy Publishing and Masonic Supply Inc ISBN- 0-88053-056-1

 

Still a Brother: The Yankee Grave That Dixie Decorates by Francis I. Karwowski www.stgeorgeslodge.org/hart.html

 

Lt. Cmdr. John Elliott Hart: by Francis I. Karwowski. The Day The War Stopped, A reenactment of the 1863 burial of Union Commander John Hart ©2008. A booklet made possible throught a grant from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

 

William Walter Leake: by Robert Leake. The Day The War Stopped, A reenactment of the 1863 burial of Union Commander John Hart ©2008.  A booklet made possible through a grant from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

 

The Day The War Stopped The Truth Revealed: by Christopher G. Pena.  The Day The War Stopped, A reenactment of the 1863 burial of Union Commander John Hart ©2008.  A booklet made possible through a grant from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

 

 

First Published in The Working Tools Masonic Magazine ©  September, 2012