The Battle of Port Hudson marked the longest siege in a war to fuse a divided nation, but it also contained a historic pause. The death of a Naval commander struck a chord with combatants on both sides who shared a common bond that predated the Civil War and the states themselves. The cannons were silenced for three days for a Mason’s funeral.
Participants from St. Francisville and Schenectady, New York, gathered June 8-10 for an annual re-enactment, “The Day the War Stopped,” that shines a light on the universal brotherhood of Freemasonry.
"The Day the War Stopped" is a three-day event that includes re-enactments and ceremonies surrounding the unusual funeral services of Lt. Commander John E. Hart of the U.S. Navy’s U.S.S. Albatross. His Union crew had set its sights on the historic Grace Church in St. Francisville during the siege, but after the commander’s suicide, sought permission to give him a proper Masonic burial there.
The back story involves two Masonic lodges — one in Schenectady and one in St. Francisville — that remain tied by this historic event after 155 years. The Union officers came on shore in St. Francisville, as fate would have it, home to the oldest Masonic Lodge in Louisiana: Feliciana Lodge No. 31, F & M. It was led by Senior Warden W.W. Leake, who was serving as a captain of a Confederate unit supporting nearby Port Hudson.
Theodore Dubois, the executive officer aboard the Albatross, took command after Hart’s death and sought Leake’s help in giving Hart a ceremonial Masonic burial. Leake complied, and no shots were fired while the union soldiers purchased a coffin and escorted their fallen commander through the streets of St. Francisville and up the hill to the heavily damaged Grace Church where Hart’s body was turned over to the St. Francisville Masons for burial.
Old friends and Masonic brothers wear the uniforms of enemies as they embrace the roles of their historic lodge brothers. Paul Martin, a 20-year member of Feliciana Lodge portrays Leake in the re-enactment. Francis Ignatius Karwowski, lovingly called “Frank the Yank” down South, is a member St. Georges Lodge No. 6 F&A.M., Schenectady, the home lodge of John Hart.
Martin, who grew up in a house on land once owned by Leake, is proud of what his historical lodge has done and is doing in his hometown and community. “I’m the treasurer of the lodge, and we are basically a fraternity that tries to help the community,” he said.
In early re-enactments, the role of Leake was played by the late Congressman John Rarick, who is credited with starting the historic re-enactment and was Leake’s great-great-grandson. “This was the 21st year and none of this would have happened without John Rarick, who wrote to the lodge in New York and asked for a representative to come down, and they said ‘Frank, you know about this, go down there,’ and this is my 20th year,” Karwowski said.
Karwowski plays the role of Dubois, but he is the leading historian on Hart’s life. On Friday evening of the re-enactment, he gives the biography of Hart at Hart’s graveside.
He has written about Hart extensively, including an historical piece requested by the Louisiana Tourist Commission and a manuscript on Hart that is buried in a time capsule near his burial grounds. “I’ve been doing research for John Hart for 30 years,” he said.
The sailors carrying the casket in the re-enactment are all from the St. Georges Lodge in New York. They are led by a local group portraying Marines from the Union ship. Feliciana native John Flippen has portrayed a Marine for several years and also performs with the Louisiana Vintage Dancers, a historic dance troupe that performed before the burial re-enactment. “We’ve been doing it since 1997, and it was started by a past worshipful master of the lodge,” Flippin said.
Hart is more known in St. Francisville than he is in his hometown of Schenectady, but Karwowski works to keep both communities informed.
Hart came from a long line of military men who served the country in wars dating back to the War of 1812 when his grandfather, John Elliot Cobb, was prize master on the Brick Harmony. “A British seaman struck him in the head with a hatchet, killed him and threw him overboard,” Karwowski said.
John Hart’s father, Benjamin Franklin Hart, was also a naval officer. “It was a naval family, and Hart received his naval commission just prior to his 18th birthday,” Karwowski said, adding it was not a state commission but a commission from President Martin Van Buren, because Benjamin Hart requested a presidential commission for his son.
Hart’s ship during the Civil War was racked by illness, including yellow fever, so some theorize that he was out of his mind with fever when he committed suicide. Karwowski explained that Hart suffered from a number of injuries and chronic health problems, but he believes that it was the loss of his daughter that compounded the depression that led him to take his life.
While the cause of his death remains in question, there is no question it proved the Freemasonry brotherhood transcended the hostilities. “It was a war between two nations and a war for political reasons,” Martin said. “As Masons, we have all of our own political ideas, but we don’t consider politics in our fraternity, and, from one brother to another, we don’t let politics get in the way.”
Karwowski pointed out that if one looked at the records of both the Army and the Navy, this is the only time that a burial came about in three days. Hart died on June 11, the soldiers came ashore and bought him a coffin at Bayou Sara on June 12, and they buried him on June 13. “I truly believe that William Walter Leake did it because it was the right thing to do,” he said. “Quite honestly, he had to live in this (Masonic) community after the war, and if he had not done what he did, John Hart would have been just another dead Yankee.”
“We are all religious, but we don’t let religion get in the way. We just treat each other as brothers,” Martin explained. “I believe that there is a universality all over the world and that Masons feel caring and a kinship to a brother Mason.”