This weekend, Masons and history buffs plan a 3-day commemoration for the 150th anniversary of the June 1863 truce called to bury Lt. Cmdr. John Hart of the USS Albatross. There will be a parade, a funeral re-enactment and talks about Civil War medicine and funerals, Hart and Confederate Capt. W.W. Leake, a Mason who approved the truce and put flowers on Hart's grave three times a year long after the war had ended.
Hart's death on June 11, 1863, came during the sieges of Vicksburg, Miss., and Port Hudson, La., during Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's campaign to cut the Confederacy in two.
"It's significant in the turmoil ... that they were able to become civilized to some degree. Here was an enemy of their country, so to speak, and they decided they would bury him with not only the Masonic service but the Episcopalian service," said Frank Karwowski, historian of the Masonic lodge in Schenectady, N.Y., where Hart entered freemasonry and rose to the rank of master six years before his death.
It wasn't the only time Masonic fraternity prevailed during the Civil War, at least for burial. In a 2006 article in The Scottish Rite Journal, Michael A. Halleran cited four others, one under fire just after the battle of Gettysburg. Union Capt. Thomas Foy took several men to collect the body of Confederate Col. Joseph Wasden of the 22nd Georgia Infantry and buried it in a nearby field, he wrote.
Two soldiers of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry Regiment described the incident in their diaries, Halleran said. Lt. Col. Elisha Hunt Rhodes (who later became a Mason and a general), wrote, "As I am not a Mason I do not understand the matter. While the burial was going on the skirmishers were constantly firing."
Hart's wasn't a battlefield burial. His executive officer, Theodore Dubois, was first allowed into St. Francisville to look for a coffin. Unable to find a sealed metal coffin in which to ship the body to New York, Dubois arranged to have Hart buried in the Masonic section of the cemetery at Grace Episcopal Church in St. Francisville. About 1900, the Daughters of the Confederacy got the Navy to set up a headstone, replacing a cypress board that had rotted away, Karwowski said, and in 1956 the Grand Lodge of Louisiana installed a marble slab over the grave.
About the time the Daughters of the Confederacy asked for the headstone, Karwowski said, the New Orlealns Picayune and other local newspapers reported that Leake still maintained Hart's grave. Leake died in 1912.
As he has since 1999, Karwowski will play Hart in the living history presentation Friday night and Hart's second-in-command in the funeral re-enactment Saturday. Leake has always been played by a member of the St. Francisville lodge — first U.S. Rep. John Rarick, then Leake's great-great-grandson Robert Leake, and now Paul Martin.
Four of Hart's descendants, including John Elliott Hart V and VI, are coming from California and Washington state for the ceremony. Great-great-great-granddaughter Mary Servais of San Diego said her family went once before, when they learned about the re-enactment. "Now we're going back because it's the 150th," she said.
Hart had spent half his life in the Navy and commanded the USS Albatross, a steamboat also rigged as a three-masted schooner, during the twin sieges of sites needed to control the Mississippi where it met the Red River, a vital Confederate supply line.
The night of March 14, 1863, the Albatross and Union Adm. David Farragut's flagship, the Hartford, had steamed past seven batteries of Confederate guns on a bluff over the Mississippi River at Port Hudson. The Albatross was one of three small gunboats lashed to larger sloops; the other two pairs and a side-wheel frigate didn't make it.
"Can I ever forget that awful night, when we came by them and for four miles took their heavy firing," Hart wrote to his wife in a chatty letter dated four days before his death.
He also wrote about her "tin party" — possibly something along the lines of a modern baby shower, since he wrote that she had not mentioned a rattle — "one very important piece of tin ware, that I am told is nearly always given on such occasions."
Their daughter died shortly after birth on July 8; it is not clear whether Hart knew, said Karwowski, who has been researching the story since 1979.
Accounts differ about both the funeral date and whether the Albatross had been shelling the town and church shortly before Hart's suicide. Christopher Pena, paid under a state grant in 2008 to research and write about Hart's death and burial, said the boat's log puts it shelling the northern Confederate batteries at Port Hudson before dawn on June 11, then sailing to Bayou Sara, at the bottom of the bluff on which St. Francisville was built. It gives a June 12 funeral date, he said. Church records put the funeral on July 13, Karwowski said.
Pena said the gunboat's acting assistant surgeon, Dr. William Burge, wrote that Hart had had spells of "great depression" for months, and when he died was suffering "remittent" — or fluctuating — fever "with frequent paroxysms of excessive despondency."
In a letter to the fleet surgeon, Burge also quoted a suicide note found under a vase on Hart's bureau: "I am a dyspeptic. Will God forgive this rash act? It has been a mania with me for years. God knows my suffering."
Siege of Vicksburg: May 18-July 4, 1863 http://www.nps.gov/vick/index.htm
Siege of Port Hudson: May 21-July 9, 1863 http://www.nps.gov/nr/twhp/wwwlps/lessons/71hudson/71hudson.htm
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.