Commander Hart

The Yankee Grave That Dixie Decorates

compiled by Francis I. Karwowski, Historian

A Schenectady native and member of St. George’s Lodge No. 6 Free and Accepted Masons, whose death wrote a unique chapter in Masonic and Civil War Military history, was Brother and Lieutenant Commander John E. Hart.

The time was April of 1863. Having fallen before the combined forces of the Union Army and Admiral Farragut’s Fleet, Benjamin (The Beast) Butler’s Army occupied New Orleans. Attached to the Fleet was the U.S.S. ALBATROSS, Lieutenant Commander John E. Hart in command. His mission was to patrol the lower Mississippi River. This assignment caused the ALBATROSS to steam past St. Francisville, Louisiana. The town is situated on the left bank of the Mississippi, about fifteen miles above Port Hudson, north of New Orleans. St. Francisville was known to be a hot bed of secessionists and a refuge for Confederate soldiers. It is not known by whose order or for what reason the ALBATROSS opened fire. It is recorded, however, that the bombardment lasted for a considerable time inflicting much damage to the town, particularly to the Grace Episcopal Church, and the Courthouse. After the firing ceased, Brother Hart, who had been confined to his small stateroom, stricken with fever, was found dead in his bunk.

John Elliot Hart was born in New York City in 1825. Not much is known about his formative years and why he relocated to Schenectady. One of the earliest accounts shows that on February 23, 1841, being then sixteen years of age, he was appointed a Midshipman in the United States Navy. On March 2, 1841, he was permitted to join the squadron on the coast of Brazil at his own expense. A little more than a year later, he was warranted. At the outbreak of the Mexican War he was serving on the famous old frigate CONSTITUTION, Pacific Squadron. On October 1, 1846, he was detached from the CONSTITUTION and permitted to enter the recently established Naval School at Annapolis, Maryland. Classes necessary for advancement and appointment
consisted of Gunnery, Steam, Mechanics, Mathematics, Astronomy, French and Navigation.

John E. Hart was successful in his endeavor to become an officer in the United States Navy. He was graduated in 1848, from the United States Naval School, twenty-fourth in his class, with an aggregate
score of 66.51. Elliot Hart, as he was known, was the ninety-second man to graduate from that now famous school.

He was married on January 27, 1855 to Harriet Emeline Van Vorst, who was born on September 9, 1831. The ceremony was performed at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Schenectady, New York. Thereafter Commander Hart made Schenectady his home. John and Harriet had two children, both sons, Abraham Elliot, born October 16, 1855
and Frank Mitchell born June 19, 1858. Young Frank died on December 22, 1858, a mere six months old.

He had married the daughter of Abram A. Van Vorst, and Amanda Maria Hulbert. Abram was elected Mayor of Schenectady for three terms 1852, 1869, 1881, and Master of St. George’s Lodge 1855-1856. The census
of 1860 has the Van Vorst family residing at 25 Liberty Street.

Schenectady the Gateway to the West, was first settled in 1661 by Dutch colonists. It is nestled in the Mohawk River Valley on land purchased from the Mohawk Indians by Arent Van Curler. A stockade was built around the perimeter of the houses for defense and protection from the hostile element. That Stockade was attacked and burned by the French and Indians, on February 8, 1690. Ironically the residents were forewarned of an attack, however snowmen were the only guardians of the Stockade that bitter winter night. After having wreaked their destruction the French and Indians departed, but not before killing sixty people, including women and children. This was not the only atrocity they committed. They also took twenty-seven prisoners, and fifty horses. This did not dampen the spirit of those early pioneers for soon afterwards the Stockade was rebuilt and the town expanded around it.

The pace of the town reflected the pace of the river, leisurely. However this changed in 1825, when the Erie Canal split the city in two, bringing industry to and through it. The town played an important role in the westward expansion because of its strategic location. The Mohawk River Valley was one of the easiest ways to reach the West and Schenectady was the gateway of that valley.

Schenectady was a leader in the industrial development of the country with several inaugural events. The first passenger rail service in the country ran from Schenectady to Albany. On August 8, 1831, the DeWitt Clinton
steam locomotive made its maiden voyage between those stations.

The sleepy town entered into a new era, manufacturing. Industry flourished in the canal town. Small machine works sprang up throughout the town in the years preceding the Civil War. The Schenectady Locomotive Engine Manufactory
began in 1848. The George Westinghouse & Company was established. In October 1861 the Clute Brothers Foundry and Machine Shop received a Federal commission to build the steam engine that would power the USS MONITOR’s turret mechanism.

Freemasonry was one of the key societies in the town those early years. St. George’s Lodge received its warrant from the hand of Sir John Johnson, fifth and final Provincial Grand Master of the Province of New York,
under the date of September 14, 1774. Colonel Christopher Yates was the first Master. Sir William Johnson had made him a Mason in St. Patrick’s Lodge, No.4, Johnstown, New York, under the date September 9, 1769. His profession was
a surveyor, and did extensive work for Sir William.

There is a tradition rife that Washington, LaFayette and Baron Stueben were all visitors to St. George’s Lodge. Washington visited Schenectady on three occasions. The last occasion was at an invitation from the town fathers.
When he was in the town he always stopped at the Inn of the Crossed Keys, owned by one of the chartered members of the Lodge, Robert Clench, and a close friend. It was also where the Lodge held their meetings. It was at the inn where
Washington was received and honored.

John Elliot Hart was made a Mason in St. George’s Lodge No. 6, Schenectady, New York, during the year 1857, the degrees being conferred as follows: Entered Apprentice, July 24; Fellowcraft, September 24 (taken in New York City);
Master Mason, December 21.

During the year 1856, John E. Hart served on the sloop JAMESTOWN, on the coast of Africa. On August 8 of 1857, he was ordered to the receiving ship NEW YORK. Then, having advanced through the various grades, being; Passed
Midshipman, August 10, 1847, Master, September 14, 1855, Lieutenant, September 15, 1855, Hart was appointed a Lieutenant Commander, July 16, 1862. He was assigned to a command on the small screw steamer ALBATROSS, a part of the squadron
of Flag Officer Admiral David G. Farragut.

From the time Lieutenant Commander John E. Hart was assigned to the U.S.S. ALBATROSS, on August 5, 1862 until his untimely death on June 11, 1863, his was a very short and action filled bidding. The attachment to Rear Admiral
Farragut’s command, specifically being the “chicken under his wing,” shows the high esteem with which Commander Hart was held. The HARTFORD and ALBATROSS seemed inseparable, linked by a cable-tow. Through the various campaigns, when
the name HARTFORD is mentioned, the ALBATROSS is associated with it, perhaps living up to its name.

The official government records state that Lieutenant Commander John E. Hart was killed in battle June 11, 1863, on the Mississippi River below Port Hudson.

The ALBATROSS was bombarding St. Francisville and the shells from her guns were wreaking havoc in the little town. In the village were several Confederate soldiers, home on leave, impotent and torn with regret at the
destruction of their homes by the ALBATROSS’ shells. Ranking the group was Captain W.W. Leake of the Confederate Army. His home was in direct line of fire between the ALBATROSS and the Courthouse, the target of the gunboat’s shells.
In the cellar his wife and children cowered in fear as the shells screamed overhead and burst with a roar in the square, many finding their mark in the Courthouse and in the Grace Episcopal Church that stood nearby.

The Grace Episcopal Church organized in March 1827, was a wooden structure of simple Georgian design. The little church never was fully completed and fell into disrepair. In June of 1858 the cornerstone for a new church,
the church which Commander Hart’s shells struck, was laid by Bishop Leonidas Polk, also known as the “Fighting Bishop from Louisiana”. This name was given him due to his dual role as a Bishop as well as a General in the Confederate Army.

The builder of the church was a master carpenter named Charles Nevitt Gibbons. He based his plans on the simple and unadorned English country churches. The Gothic style church with its off center bell tower was completed by
Easter Sunday 1860. The shells from the ALBATROSS destroyed this belfry. This and other significant damage, which the church suffered, could not be repaired until many years afterwards. These repairs were completed in 1893 when
the church was re-consecrated.

Though simple in design, the church had some outstanding features that survived the attack. The magnificent two-manual tracker action pipe organ built by H. & W. Pilcher in 1860 survived. It is listed as number 42 in the factory
books at St. Louis and believed to be the only one of its type still in existence in the United States. The altar window and the rose window over the entrance door are of European design. The leaded glass on the side walls and their top
insets are of stained glass which appear to be “painted” by some unknown method, an early American attempt at glass making.

In his bunk aboard the ship, the young Captain lay in the grip of a tropic fever. His end was near. An unconfirmed story has it he committed suicide while in a delirium caused by the fever, however it might have been a
reoccurrence of a previous injury. One thing we can be sure of; he died during the action at St. Francisville, Louisiana.

Suddenly the firing ceased and two brothers standing on the river bank saw a boat put off from the ALBATROSS manned by trim blue-clad figures, with one in its bow, brave in Navy blue and gold. The officer carried a flag of truce.

Brother Hart had made it known that he desired a Masonic funeral service. Several of Hart’s officers were Masons. Unable to send their Commander’s body home at the time, and being loath to sink it in the river, they determined to appeal to
Masons on the Confederate side for burial. They approached the village of St. Francisville, Louisiana, the home of Feliciana Lodge No. 31. The Grand Lodge of Kentucky had originally chartered this Lodge in 1817, receiving its
Louisiana charter in 1828. At this time the Master of Feliciana Lodge was Samuel J. Powell, who was serving as a Captain in the Confederate Cavalry. He had been initiated in Feliciana Lodge in 1854, elected Master in 1861, and
was destined to greater Masonic fame for in 1877 he was elected Grand Master of Louisiana and served two years. Apparently he was not at home during June of 1863, although one account would have it that he was.

There were at the time two Masons living near the banks of the river, two brothers, named Samuel and Benjamin White. The first named was owner of the ferryboat, and the other owned the steamboat RED CHIEF, years
before. They were not members of Feliciana Lodge but had visited it repeatedly, and retained their membership in their Mother Lodge in Indiana. To them the mission of the visitors was made known. They answered that there was a Lodge in
the town; that it’s Master, Worshipful Brother S. J. Powell, was absent. He was serving his state in the Confederate Army. It’s Senior Warden Brother W. W. Leake, acting Master, was likewise engaged, but that he was in the vicinity.
They would endeavor to reach him and refer their request to him.

Brother Leake’s headquarters were in the saddle, but he was found and made acquainted with the visit of these enemies and their request. He was also informed that the Lieutenant Commander and Surgeon on board the vessel were
Masons and would vouch for the Masonic standing of the deceased Commander.

Brother Leake replied that he was an officer in the Confederate Army. As a soldier, he considered it his duty to permit the burial of a deceased member of the Army or Navy of any government. In the present instance, even if
there was war between that government and his own. Captain Leake’s reply was “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 Masons in town; I shall find all I can. You two are Masons, I shall want you at the funeral service.” Brother Leake’s response is particularly notable. During the
bombardment, he had huddled with his wife and three children, by one account, under the steps of their brick house as shells burst all around them.

Presently the ship’s crew brought ashore Brother Hart’s body, clothed in the blue uniform of an officer in the United States Navy. The boat was met by the White brothers and four members of Feliciana Lodge No. 31 of St.
Francisville, wearing their Masonic regalia above their Grey Confederate uniforms. The Masons from the ALBATROSS and the Confederate Masons identified themselves to be such by the usual signs and tokens. The body was borne to
the white wooden home of Feliciana Lodge where the ancient Masonic funeral was conducted, Brother Leake officiating as Worshipful Master.

The body was then carried to the graveyard of the Grace Episcopal Church, which is on the east side, through the Lodge plot to the place of internment. The Brothers united in Masonry, ranged themselves across a grave
they had dug amid the shell holes from the dead officer’s own guns, a grave that had been prepared in the Masonic plot. Here the last Masonic rite was given. The gray and blue clad Brother Masons lowered the mortal remains of the
Commander of the U.S.S. ALBATROSS into the earth he wished to be his resting-place. After the graveside service, both the shore party and their Confederate counterparts exchanged salutes. The Federal Naval men returned to
their ship, unharmed and unnoticed by the people of St. Francisville. Colors broke out at the masthead. They weighed anchor, turned sharp in the water, and steamed away down the Mississippi.

The death of Commander Hart was announced in the Schenectady Democrat and Reflector of June 25, 1863, by a New Orleans correspondent of the New York Herald as follows; “I regret to announce that I have this moment learned
from a gentleman who arrived from the river this afternoon that Lieutenant Commander John E. Hart, United States Navy, Commander of the gunboat ALBATROSS, committed suicide night before last by blowing his brains out with a pistol.
He had been ill for a few days past with fever, and it is supposed to have affected his brain in a manner to render him insane. He is thought to have been in that condition when the act was committed. Lieutenant Commander
Hart was an officer highly esteemed and beloved in the service. He has lately distinguished himself by gallant conduct in a fight with the enemy’s gunboats near Fort De Russy, on the Red River; so much so that the Admiral
has made particular mention of him in his dispatches. He leaves a wife and family in New York to whom his loss will be irreparable. They have the sympathy of all in their sore affliction.

The ALBATROSS was at Port Hudson. Captain Hart had done good service under General Banks, his whole heart being in the work, as is evinced by the letters received by his family. He is a son-in-law of Mr. Abram Van Vorst of this
city, with whom his wife and one child are living. He was a faithful, enthusiastic officer, and did the cause good service. It is barely possible, though not probably, that the report of Captain Hart’s death is incorrect. It comes from no
other source than the above.”

Commander Hart’s death was communicated at the time of its occurrence to his father-in-law, Abram Van Vorst at Schenectady, New York, by the Executive Officer of the United States Gunboat ALBATROSS (in part), as follows: “He was
buried with Military and Masonic honors. The Episcopal Service was read by the Rev. Dr. Lewis, Pastor of the Church of St. Francisville. A certificate of his burial will be sent to you, and the remains can be sent for by communicating
with the Lodge mentioned in the certificate.” On the margin of this letter is written: “Feliciana Lodge No. 31, St. Francisville, Louisiana, Wm. W. Leake, Senior Warden, acting Worshipful Master”

The official government record states that during February 1865, the widow of the deceased officer sought permission to have the body taken up from the churchyard at St. Francisville and sent to her. No further correspondence
relative to this request is available.

The grave was marked at first by a wooden board. It was known as the Yankee grave decorated by Dixie. Captain Leake started the custom of placing flowers on Commander Hart’s grave. He saw to it the grave was kept up.
About the year 1900, the board having rotted away, Feliciana Lodge took the matter up with the Navy Department and a suitable marble headstone was erected.

Captain Leake survived the war, became Master of Feliciana Lodge and lived to be honored for fifty-five years of service to the Craft. Upon his death in 1912, his body was laid to rest beside the enemy he had buried as a Brother.
Subsequently, the United Daughters of the Confederacy at St. Francisville took up the upkeep of the graves and persuaded the United States Government to place a simple marble headstone on the two graves, with a curt official inscription.
Through the years since the grave was dug, members of the Leake family have placed flowers on the grave. It is adorned on the Memorial Days of both the North and the South, and on All Saints Day; the Yankee grave that Dixie decorates.

About 1905, Commander Hart’s son, living in Colorado, made inquiries concerning his father’s death and burial, with a view to taking up the body. Several letters passed between Brother Leake and Brother A.E. Hart, son of Commander Hart,
whose remains are at rest in the South. They exhibited a depth of feeling and convey sentiments that we believe to be a fitting finale to this interesting episode. Upon being assured that not only was his father’s grave being cared for,
but that on Decoration Day each year, flowers and a United States Flag were placed on the mound, the younger Hart decided to leave the remains of his father in their first resting place.

On Sunday, January 8, 1956, the Special Committee on Burial Places of Past Grand Masters of the Grand Lodge of Louisiana, Hippolyte Dabezies, Chairman, unveiled a new monument. He briefly cited the story of the burial
and stated: “This monument is dedicated in loving tribute to the universality of Free Masonry.” The monument covers the entire grave space of Commander Hart and the former marker has been used as a headstone. Among those in attendance
who took part in the ceremony were Dr. Louis A. Legett, Grand Master of Louisiana, Brother Eugene W. Baxter, Worshipful Master elect of St. George’s Lodge No. 6, Schenectady, New York, Mrs. Camilla Leake Barrow, daughter of Judge Leake
and Grand Secretary Emeritus of the Order of the Eastern Star, J.R. Matthews, Past Master and oldest living member of Feliciana Lodge. The three principal officers of Feliciana Lodge, Charles Allen Sheets, Worshipful Master,
Joseph J. Daniel Jr., Senior Warden, and James S. Rithcie, Junior Warden, also were in attendance.

This incident that so vividly displays true Masonic Brotherhood, so powerful, it could stop a war, if only for a few brief hours, gives one cause to wonder if it could happen today.


On June 16, 2007, members of the Leake and the Hart families met for the first time since the burial of Lt. Commander John E. Hart. Robert Leake, a great, great grandson of W.W. Leake, represented the Leake family.
Mary Servais, the great, great granddaughter of J.E. Hart, represented the Hart family. It was a very touching moment to those present to see these families greet and meet each other after over 144 years.

Mary Hart Servais is the eldest daughter of John Elliott Hart, who was the son of Elliott Hart and Brooks Mitchell. She has a sister, Brooks Anne, and a brother, John Elliott Hart. She has three children Andrew, Elliott and
Margaret. John Elliott Hart has two children, Molly Hart and John Elliott Hart. John Elliott Hart’s name lives on not only through his family, but also with the recognition given him in St. Francisville, Louisiana, each year in June
as the citizens there commemorate the day in 1863 when Hart’s death stopped the Civil War for a day.

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