In the last letter home to his wife in Schenectady, John E. Hart gave no indication of the tragedy that was to occur just a few days later.
Officially, the lieutenant commander of the USS Albatross “was killed in battle June 11, 1863, on the Mississippi River below Port Hudson.” The real story, the one generally considered as fact, was that Hart, stricken with yellow fever and possibly suffering from delusions, took his own life with a gunshot to the head.
It’s just one of hundreds of thousands of sad narratives from the U.S. Civil War, but what makes Hart’s story so special is what happened after he died. A Mason and a member of St. George’s Lodge No. 6 in Schenectady, Hart was given a Masonic funeral two days later in St. Francisville, La., the same Mississippi River town that had been bombarded by Hart’s ship the previous day.
“This is a totally unique event,” said Frank Karwowski, who serves as historian for St. George’s Lodge, on Princetown Road. “It happened on the battlefield at times where soldiers were given a quick Masonic burial, but this was different. Hart’s officers knew he wanted a Masonic service. They were unable to send his body home, and they were loath to sink it in the river. They knew there were Masons in St. Francisville, so they appealed to those Masons on the Confederate side for burial.”
A trip to Louisiana
The Confederates, in particular an officer named William Walker Leake, agreed to accommodate the Union request, and since 1998, the 135th anniversary of Hart’s death, Masons from Feliciana Lodge No. 31 in Louisiana have organized a re-enactment of the Masonic service and burial at the Grace Episcopal Church in St. Francisville. Joining them have been representatives from St. George’s Lodge in Schenectady.
Karwowski has made nearly every trip since the re-enactment began and will be joined by four of his St. George’s brothers this year.
“The first year my wife and I went down there and we were greeted with open arms,” said Karwowski. “The mayor made us honorary citizens of the town, and it was a wonderful event. It’s great to hear about the stories of the Masonic fraternity, and they have re-enactors down there that do a great job. They actually carry the coffin up the hill to the church cemetery, exactly like they did back in 1863.”
Chip Landry, who spends most of his time as a member of the re-enactment group the Louisiana State Militia, 10th Brigade, puts away his Confederate gray outfit for the Hart re-enactment and dons the blue of U.S. Naval Marines.
“There are about eight of us that show up, and six of us carry the casket,” said Landry. “It’s a very interesting program, and we’re happy to do it. I can remember a fellow re-enactor calling me up back when it started and asking me to come to this thing, and he said, ‘There’s only one bad thing. You gotta put on a blue coat.’ Well, I told him I could do that for one day, and now I’ve been doing it for eight or nine years. Fortunately, I’ve had about half of my unit also invest in Civil War marine uniforms. Most of us aren’t Masons, but we’re happy to do it. It truly is a unique event and something much different from what we usually do.”
Sailor’s rise and fall
Hart was born in New York City in 1825 and moved to Schenectady in the 1850s. There, he fell in love with Hattie Van Vorst, the daughter of Mayor Abraham Van Vorst, and married her. He came from a military family; his grandfather and an uncle were both killed while serving as members of the U.S. Navy during the War of 1812.
“He got an appointment to Annapolis as a midshipman and in 1848 graduated from the United States Naval Academy, the 92nd man to graduate from that now-famous school,” said Karwowski. “We don’t really know why he came to Schenectady, but in 1857 he became a Mason in St. George’s Lodge.”
Hart had previously seen much of the world serving in the U.S. Navy. And in July of 1862, having risen to the rank of lieutenant commander, he was assigned to the USS Albatross, part of Adm. Farragut’s fleet on the Mississippi River. He performed admirably along the Mississippi, according to Karwowski, but in June of 1863, he became ill with yellow fever. And on June 11, he ended his life.
“They heard a gunshot, went to his stateroom and found him lying on the floor with his pistol next to him,” said Karwowski. “There was a report that he was in despair and left a note, but I have never come across it in all my research. He had been very upbeat a few days earlier in a letter to his wife and wrote about bringing her down there after the war.”
Ties to history
Hart’s grave in the St. Francisville church cemetery was originally marked by a wooden board and became known as “the Yankee grave decorated by Dixie.” It was Leake who began the practice of placing flowers on Hart’s grave. In 1900, with the wooden board beginning to rot, members of the Feliciana Lodge asked the U.S. Navy for a marble headstone and were granted one. Leake, meanwhile, became master of the Feliciana Lodge and survived until 1912, when his body was laid to rest alongside the enemy he had buried 49 years earlier.
A few years earlier, Hart’s son, A.E. Hart, had thought about having his father’s body brought to Colorado where the family now lived. But after corresponding with Leake about his father’s grave site, he decided to leave him in St. Francisville.
On Jan. 8, 1956, the Special Committee on Burial Places of Past Grand Masters of the Grand Lodge of Louisiana unveiled a monument documenting Hart’s story in the cemetery next to his grave. Gene Baxter, a member of St. George’s Lodge and proprietor of Baxter Funeral Home, was at the 1956 ceremony. The 135th anniversary brought about the beginning of the re-enactments in 1998. And in 2007, for the very first time, members of the Hart and Leake families participated in the ceremony. Robert Leake, a great-great grandson of Leake’s, was there honoring his ancestor, as was Mary Servais, the great-great granddaughter of Hart.
The re-enactment of Hart’s funeral is the highlight of a three-day event in St. Francisville called “The Day the War Stopped.” Karwowski will read a short history of Hart at the grave site next Friday evening, and on Saturday the burial re-enactment will take place between 1:30 and 2:30 p.m.
“It’s a wonderful event, and there’s usually a pretty good turnout,” said Karwowski. “We have the re-enactors in uniform, and then there are actors, people from the town, who play people such as the minister who performed the burial service. The people from St. Francisville and the surrounding area really seem to enjoy it.”