Vol. XVI No. 7 — July 1938

Six Masonic War Tales

The hatreds, passions, cruelties and horrors of war have little amelioration. The Church does what it can, the Red Cross administers first aid, the Medical Corps does its best to repair broken bodies, but when men take the field to kill each other, humanities retire to the background and the elemental savage in man comes out.

It is, then, the more remarkable that the fires of war have not always been hot enough to burn away Masonic obligations, and that in the midst of the most dreadful strife, brethren have paused to extend the hand of fellowship to a Mason, his dependents or his property, endangered by the tide of battle.

Here are six tales, all true, and all worth a place in any Mason’s memory.

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An historic incident, in which Masonry played a part which has had far reaching effects, was the saving of the great Albert Pike’s library. The story is told in many forms, but in none with more feeling than by T. S. Parvin, of Iowa, who in a memorial address, October 25, 1895, delivered at the grave of Albert Pike in Georgetown, D.C., said:

It is due to history and to the memory of a dear friend and Brother that an incident touching our great Library, the gift to the Supreme Council of General Pike, be placed upon our records, that honor may be given to whom honor is due.

I had the facts, first by letter, and then, upon his return from the war, from the lips of Colonel Thomas Hart Benton, Jr., at the time grand master of Masons in Iowa (my superior officer). Thomas H. Benton, Jr. (nephew of his uncle of that name), ex-state Senator, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and grand master 1860-63, entered the Union Army as Colonel of the 29th Iowa Infantry and was later promoted to the rank of brevet brigadier-general, and in command of a division encamped for a time at Little Rock, Arkansas.

It was at this period, when the passions of the Union soldiers were aroused against General Pike, who was at the head of the Indians in the Confederate (Rebel, as they said) Army, that the soldiers of his division determined to burn the house and everything, including the valuable library of General Pike, wherever found. The grand master, Colonel Benton, hearing of this, rushed to its rescue, and to guard against any further attempt, at its destruction, made the General’s house his headquarters and placed a guard over his library.

But for this noble deed of Iowa’s grand master, my bosom friend for half a century, the Supreme Council would today be without, instead of possessing, one of the most rare and valuable libraries in the land.

General Benton was too modest to publish this, save to his intimate friends. Of him we may say in General Pike’s own words, He has lived — the fruits of his labors live after him; and you, my Brothers, are enjoying them, as it was this service that made it possible for General Pike in later years to place his library in our House of the Temple and dispose of it, as he did, for his honor and our good.

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An inspiring tale comes from Texas, where the memory of the Alamo and its brave defenders is as sacred as that of Bunker Hill in Massachusetts, Valley Forge in Pennsylvania, Trenton, and the crossing of the Delaware in New Jersey.

Angelina Dickinson, the “Babe of the Alamo,” was the daughter of Captain Almeron and Susanna Dickinson. Captain Dickinson had charge of the artillery of the defenders of the Alamo when the Mexicans, under Santa Anna, who was a Mason, laid siege to the fortress. Ramon Musquiz, a Mexican official, was a friend of the Dickinsons, and had helped Stephen F. Austin establish a Masonic lodge in Texas in 1827. When the Mexicans were about to begin the siege, Captain Dickinson hurriedly placed his young wife, who was only eighteen years of age, and their baby in a small room in the old ruin of a church within the Alamo. During the thirteen-day siege, Dickinson often requested his wife to wrap his Masonic apron about herself and baby if the fortress should fall.

On the morning of March 6, 1836, after the battle was over, a Mexican officer came to the Alamo and asked for Mrs. Dickinson. Remembering her husband’s request, she appeared in the presence of the officer with her child in her arms and the Masonic apron tied over her shoulders.

It is said that she never knew whether the Masonic apron had any part in saving her, for the Mexicans seemed not to notice it, but she always felt that that was one reason that she and her child were spared.

Presumably the Mexican officer was ordered by Gen. Santa Anna to bring Mrs. Dickinson to his camp at the instance of Ramon Musquiz. Then the mother and daughter were treated with consideration and even with kindness, and a few days later, Gen. Santa Anna sent them on a horse in care of his own negro servant Ben[1] to General Houston, a Mason, who was then at Gonzales.

As in the War Between the States, there were Masons on both sides in the conflict with Mexico. Yet those in each camp were true to their own country, while endeavoring to soften the horrors of war to their Masonic Brethren.

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R.W. Sidney Morse, of New York, writes the following in his splendid little book, Freemasonry in the American Revolution:

The British occupation of New York had important Masonic consequences. A large part of the officers and members of old St. John’s Lodge No. 2, loyal to the American cause, followed Washington upon his northward retreat, taking the lodge warrent with them. Doubtless, the same was true of other lodges. The records appear to have been lost during this period and, though we may believe that the early New York Masons were as active in the cause of liberty as the Boston and Philadelphia brethren, their names and fame have never been brought to light.

According to the historian of St. John’s Lodge No. 2, however, the Tory members of the lodge appear to have met irregularly with members of the British Military lodges. One evening, while such a group was in session, the ceiling of the lodge room gave way and an escaped prisoner of war, Brother Joseph Burnham, who was a patriot member of the lodge, was precipitated into the midst of a number of loyalists and British officers. Brother “Daddy” Hopkins, tiler of the lodge and keeper of the Green Bay Tree Inn, their place of meeting, explained, when called upon, that he had been concealing Brother Burnham in the attic until opportunity should offer to convey him to the Jersey shore.

Instead of causing his arrest, the brethren present made up a generous contribution for his relief and offered no obstacle when his escape was afterward effected.

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A pretty story centers about a grave in Grace Church cemetery, St. Francisville, La. A small, simple headstone marks it. On the darkened marble is carved a shield and the letters in bas-relief: “J. E. Hart, Lt. Comd’r, U.S. Navy.”

No relative of that officer of the United States Navy in the War Between the States ever lived in St. Francisville. Yet always the grass above his grave is clipped. In the 75 years since that grave was dug, fresh flowers have adorned it on the Memorial Days of North and South and on All Saints’ Day. For a war paused while Masons in the uniform of the Confederate States of America with Masonic ritual lowered the body of a brother Mason, enemy through the fortunes of war.

The year was 1863. New Orleans had fallen before Farragut’s fleet and Butler’s army. Up and down the Mississippi river ranged Union gunboats. Among them was the United States Steamer Albatross, with Lieutenant-Commander John E. Hart, United States Navy, of Schenectady, N.Y., member of St. George’s Lodge No. 6, Free and Accepted Masons, her commander with the temporary rank of captain. Captain Hart was stricken with a fever contracted on duty that held him, delirious, in his bunk in his tiny stateroom.

In the log of the Albatross, the following official entry yet survives in the navy department archives at Washington:

June 11, 1863: 4:15 p.m. The report of a pistol was heard in the captain’s stateroom. The steward at once ran in and found the captain lying on the floor with blood oozing from his head and a pistol near him, one barrel of which was discharged. The surgeon was at once called but life was extinct. We then got under way, and in rounding to get around, the steamers Sachem, General Banks and Bee came to our assistance.

On Captain Hart’s personal official record in the navy department archives is the charitable notation, “Died of wounds,” although there is no doubt that, in his delirium, he shot himself.

There was no Confederate force at St. Francisville that day to defend the town. The lovely old place lay passive and took 108 shells, which riddled the old courthouse, ruined Grace Church, shattered the beautiful stained-glass window above the altar. The few Confederate soldiers there on leave could only grind their teeth in impotent rage.

Suddenly, the firing ceased. Those who watched from the bluff saw a ship’s boat put out from the Albatross, an officer in the stern, Union sailors rowing, and in the bow a white flag.

Two brothers dwelt at the foot of the bluff, Samuel and Benjamin White, both of them Masons; the Union naval officer in the Albatross’ boat hailed them:

“Is there a Mason in this town?”

“There is a Masonic lodge in St. Francisville,” one of the White brothers told him. “We are not members, but we were Masons when we came here. We have visited it. S. J. Powell is its master, but he is away on duty with the Confederate army. (Later he became grand master in Louisiana.) But W. W. Leake is senior warden, and though he is a captain in the Confederate army, he happens to be in St. Francisville on furlough.”

“Go tell him our captain is dead,” said the Albatross’ officer. “He was a Mason. We have Masons on board who can vouch for his standing. Before he died he expressed the wish to be buried in the earth with Masonic ritual, instead of given navy burial in the Mississippi river. We will wait for your answer.”

Benjamin White and Samuel White climbed the road up the bluff, found Captain W. W. Leake, C.S.A. gave the message.

“As a Mason,” said Captain Leake, instantly, “it is my duty to accord Masonic burial to a brother Mason without taking into account the nature of our relations in the world outside Masonry. Go tell that Union officer to bring his captain’s body ashore. There are few Masons left in town, most of us are at the front. I shall find all I can. You, too, are Masons. I shall want you at the funeral services.”

The flag of truce yet flying, the ship’s boat from the Albatross bore Captain Hart’s body ashore, clad in his uniform as a United States navy officer. At the foot of the bluff to meet it, their Masonic regalia worn above their uniforms of Confederate gray, stood four members of Feliciana Lodge No. 31 of St. Francisville, and the two brothers, Samuel and Benjamin White. The Masons of the U.S.S. Albatross identified themselves to the Masons of the Confederate army.

Up the bluff and into the little white wooden home of Feliciana Lodge No. 31, that still stands, a public library now, they bore the body, and over it they conducted the ancient funeral service of Masonry. Then to the cemetery in the churchyard of Grace Church, pitted with the shell holes from that dead officer’s own guns, they went to the grave St. Francisville’s Masons had dug. There, with Masonic ritual, they consigned all that was mortal of Lieutenant-Commander John E. Hart, United States Navy, commander of the U.S.S. Albatross, gunboat.

When the newly turned earth lay above the coffin the shore party of the Albatross saluted and departed for their gunboat, unmolested. The watching Confederates on the top of the bluff, amid the shell-shattered wreckage of what had been beautiful St. Francisville, saw the Albatross up-anchor, swing around and steam down the Mississippi river.

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The Lodge of Amity, No. 137, at Poole, England, cherishes a varnished dog biscuit, now one hundred and twenty-five years old, about which clusters a tale which has never grown stale in the telling.

During the closing years of the Napoleonic wars, there was great bitterness between Englishmen and their foes across the channel. Feeling ran high, and he was little to be envied who was carried a prisoner to either country from the other.

The brig Oak, of Poole, Bro. Stephen Pack, master, was captured at sea by Capt. Jacques de Bon, of the French privateer Junon, of St. Malo, on 15th December 1815. As soon as the Prize-master came on board his vessel, Bro. Pack “discovered himself to be a Mason to him, who also happened to be one.” The Prize-master shook Bro. Pack by the hand, assuring him that he should not be carried a prisoner to France. He then hailed the Junon and received an answer, the import of which Bro. Pack failed to grasp, not understanding the French language. He was ordered aboard the privateer, where he received brotherly kindness from Captain de Bon, who restored him his vessel and told him to make the best of his way to England.

In getting into his boat to return to the brig Oak, Bro. Pack observed that the Frenchmen put a little dog aboard. He tried to make them understand that he did not want it, but the insistent sailors had their way. When the Frenchmen had quitted him for good, Bro. Pack observed something hanging to the dog’s neck, which proved on closer examination to be a cake of bread or ship’s biscuit. It had a hole in the middle and was attached with a piece of rope yarn. The dog, so it transpired later, belonged to a Captain Storey, another member of the Fraternity, who had been captured and released by Captain de Bon a few days previous.

The released captain had no difficulty in reading the message: “I would not even keep a Brother’s dog in bondage, or see it want food, much more a Brother himself.” In the minutes of lodge of Amity appears this entry:

It (i.e., the biscuit) is intended to be varnished, Framed and hung up in the lodge, with an appropriate Inscription on it, as a lasting Memento of our highly esteemed and human Bro. Capt. Jacques de Bon, for his praiseworthy attention to all and every one of our Bretheren that have been captured by him. May they never forget the name of Jacques de Bon, and should he have the misfortune at any future time to be captured and brought a Prisoner to this Country, it is presumed there is not a Brother in the Country who may have heard of his brotherly kindness to Masons in general but would render him every consolation and assistance in his power, Consistent with his duty to his King, his Country, and Masonry in general.

The biscuit was in due course varnished and framed, Bro. John Hosier, a Poole schoolmaster, providing the appropriate inscription. The writing is exceedingly small, but it can be deciphered. Bro. Hosier sketched at the head of the inscription the little dog with a ship’s biscuit attached to its neck, not by means of a piece of rope yarn, but by a blue collar! The concluding paragraph reads as follows:

Thus the man who holds forth his hand for the relief of his necessitous Brethren is amply repaid by the gratitude of those whom he relieves, by the approbation of his own mind, and by the favour of the Omnipotent Being who fills all space, and whose omniscient eye cannot behold such a bright display of Masonic virtues without assenting His divine and everlasting approbation.

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A story of the Civil War told by Carl Claudy in the Masonic Outlook for January 1936, bears retelling (somewhat shortened) here:

Craftsmen in Washington, D.C., in 1925, were engaged in an intensive “drive” to secure funds for a new Temple.

To a certain printer went one solicitor. The proprietor was a Mason, and gladly signed up. Then, an old man setting type at a case approached.

“Can I subscribe?” he asked, diffidently.

“Indeed you may!” was the delighted answer. “Although I have no other name of a Brother on my list in this shop.”

“Oh, I’m not a Mason,” was the surprising answer. “I tried to be, but they wouldn’t have me. . . . Wasn’t good enough. But I’d like to subscribe. . . .”

The solicitor brought forth his book of pledges. Somewhat nonplussed, he offered the blank to the man who wanted to subscribe. “I don’t want to sign anything. I haven’t much. I’m just a bum — drink, you know. But I got a bill or so. . . .”

The compositor brought forth a pocket book. From it he took three one-dollar bills. “All I can afford,” he said. “But take it and welcome.”

The solicitor signed a receipt. Still puzzled, he ventured: “Would you mind telling me why you, a non-Mason — indeed, a rejected petitioner — should want to help us with our Temple? It seems rather — er — unusual.”

“Sure, I’ll tell you. I’m pretty old. Older’n I look. I drink. Always have. No good! The boss just keeps me on out of charity, I guess. But I wasn’t always a bum. I wasn’t a bum when I was a kid of six, down in Georgia.

“You see, Sherman came through. War is hell, and he made it all of that. Burned everything — houses, farms, outbuildings, towns. Sherman’s men came through our town. There was only me and sister — she was five — and Mother. We were all scared. We could see the smoke as the soldiers fired the houses on the one street of our little town. Mother was young, and pretty, I guess, and she was afraid to go out. Afraid to run away — afraid to stay!

“She took sis and me down cellar. It was dark there, and cool — I remember the bundles of sage and the corn, drying, hanging on the walls, and the barrel of apples. . . . We heard the soldiers yelling. We clung to her skirts. I guess she hoped they’d fire the house and go on, and we could escape unseen before it burned down over us.

“There was a lot of noise. Flames crackled in the house next us. Men calling; feet overhead . . . seemed like the whole Yankee army paraded through our house I remember sister crying, and Mother holding me tight, tight against her skirt. . . . I recall her hands on my head and her low voice. “Don’t be frightened, children. Mother won’t let anyone hurt you. . . .”

“We heard furniture overturned, heavy steps — they climbed upstairs. There was silence for a minute or two. After that the steps overhead again . . . and a big voice crying, ‘Out — out — I’ll attend to it — go fire the next house!’

“The front door slammed. There were no more steps.

“We cowered against Mother for — oh, hours, it seemed. At last she left us, and went upstairs. There was no one there. She came back and got us. I remember the house was a mess; chairs overturned, things strewn around. . . . All drawers were open, everything ransacked. The soldiers always looted before they burned.

“The attic door stood open. We followed Mother. Dad’s trunk was there, open — Daddy was with Lee. On the top of the clothes in the trunk was something white. It had a blue edge, I remember. I didn’t know what it was. But Mother knew. I didn’t understand what she said — then. But I do now.

“She cried out, loudly. ‘Oh, Daddy, Daddy! Come back to me. I need you so . . . come back and wear your apron again!’

“The white thing with the blue edge was a Masonic apron. The officer who found it must have been a Mason. He ordered his men out of our house, and said he’d ‘attend to’ burning it. But he didn’t. Ours was the only house in the town that wasn’t burned.

“I wanted to be a Mason but I was just a bum. They were quite right not to take me. And I want to give you the three dollars. . .

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  1. Ben may have been Col. Juan Almonte’s cook.

The Masonic Service Association of North America