Undertaking a Tour
Historian, author and attorney Payne Williams of the Natchitoches Historic Foundation is already recruiting spirits to make gravesite appearances during the town’s popular Sacred Places Tour in mid-March. South Louisiana towns are preparing for the All Saints Day whitewashings and candle lightings of their cemeteries and folks in Winnfield, Beech Creek, Sykes and other upland communities are setting dates for their fall and spring “Graveyard Working Days” complete with traditional “dinner on the grounds.”
The 18th century American Cemetery in Natchitoches.
SONNY CARTER PHOTOGRAPH
Marie Laveau’s tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPH
An early 20th century postcard shows the St. Martinville landmark statue of Evangeline.
Meantime, tour guides in New Orleans are busy herding their daily droves of locals and visitors through St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, Lafayette No. 1, Metairie Cemetery and others. Me, I’m on my way to Monroe, taking the scenic Ouachita River route up through Columbia, a town you just can’t pass without detouring to circle the little hilltop lane above breathtaking Columbia Hill Cemetery, nestled in its shady vale 20 or so feet below the trail.
Cemeteries are places of great sorrow, no question, but also of great beauty, tranquility and historic significance. Many of us have become more conscious of them thanks to a slender volume called Louisiana COD (Cities of the Dead) by after-dinner speaker, comic and historian Buddy Stall of New Orleans. Already scarce but available on-line at Amazon or Alibris, it describes significant burial sites around the state and provides lighthearted insights into our funerary practices and tombstone symbolism.
We all know about the tomb of Marie Laveau (“Widow Paris”) and what to do when you visit it. Maybe we don’t still believe clapping hands or spinning left or right can really help coax favors from voodoo queens but admit it, if you found yourself in New Orleans at that X-marked tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, you’d make your mark and make your wish!
Then there’s tiny St. Martin cemetery in St. Martinville. It’s a place of beauty and mystique, sacred in Acadian tradition as the burial place of Emmeline Labiche, prototype of Longfellow’s Evangeline – although long since disproved, it’s just as important a story in Cajun country lore as Longfellow’s own.
Our second most famous love story involves West Feliciana’s Locust Grove Cemetery, resting place of young Sarah Knox Taylor Davis who was daughter of future U.S. President Zachary Taylor and bride of future Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Locust Grove was the home of Davis’s sister and the newlyweds were visiting it in 1835, when both were stricken with a fever from which Sarah didn’t recover. From U.S. 61 at St. Francisville, drive a mile east on Highway 10 and north on the Bains-Ristrogh Road to reach it.
The old Berthoud Mound cemetery is a favorite of mine. It hugs the bank of Jean Laffite’s Bayou Barataria, rests upon an Indian mound and is associated with our favorite kind of legend – the utterly impossible. For generations, three of its tombs were staunchly held in local mythology to be the graves of Jean Laffite, John Paul Jones and, yes, Napoleon.
Sporting folks all know the story of how the Metairie Race Course of antebellum days evolved into today’s Metairie Cemetery – with its great oval drive and narrower cross-streets leading off between tall and tight-set tombs of every conceivable stone and style. Residents range from first-governor William C.C. Claiborne and heroes of every American war to the politicians, entrepreneurs, restaurateurs and ordinary citizens of more recent times.
If the aboveground tombs of New Orleans are “cities” of the dead, little Talbert Cemetery in Beauregard Parish is a “village.” On Highway 112, two miles west of Sugartown (so named for its famously sweet watermelons), the graveyard owes its village-like appearance to measures adopted generations ago to keep deer, boars and other wildlife at bay. Each plot is walled by tall pickets and capped with a tin roof, resembling a shotgun cottage.
Back in New Orleans, below the French Quarter on St. Roch Avenue is picturesque St. Roch Cemetery and its Gothic chapel. The story goes that the parish’s German-born priest, Fr. Peter Thevis, begged the intercession of St. Roch (patron of plague victims) to shield his congregation from a yellow fever epidemic, then in gratitude built the chapel with volunteers and with his own hands in 1875, modeled upon the Campo Santo Dei Tedeschi in Rome. By 1900, St. Roch had been “discovered,” inspiring short stories and chapters in the books of local and visiting writers and photographers well into the 20th century.
St. Roch Cemetery in New Orleans
CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPH
Mark Twain grumbled that the “sculptor’s art” in New Orleans was confined to its cemeteries – in truth there’s plenty of it at gravesites across the entire state including the distinctive stone-log markers of the Woodmen of the World, the crossed-swords headstones of rank-and-file Civil War vets and grave top obelisks to busts and statues of more famous characters, it seems just a handful of such tributes can lend dignity to an entire cemetery. Tied for best-known are the statue of Huey Long towering over his gravesite in his one-man cemetery, the State Capitol’s formal gardens, and the beloved statue of Evangeline in old St. Martin churchyard, posed for by actress Dolores del Rio after she starred in the 1929 film version of Longfellow’s epic.
Greenwood Cemetery in New Orleans boasts a stalwart Confederate sentry, a daring hose-wielding fireman and a noble Elks Club elk. In Metairie Cemetery next door, Stonewall Jackson stands atop a 38-foot column at the Army of Northern Virginia memorial, the Louisiana Division/Army of Tennessee memorial includes an equestrian statue of Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston and, at the entry, the figure of Sgt. William Brunet can be seen completing his final “all present or accounted for” report as the last of his comrades gather in.
At the Smitherman family plot in Shreveport’s old Forest Park Cemetery stands a fine likeness of Air Corps pilot R.E. Smitherman who died in World War II and St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Thibodaux includes a fine bust of a pioneering priest, Fr. Charles Menard.
Everyone’s favorite? It has to be the full-sized statue of Sidney Saunders in Monroe’s DeSiard Street cemetery: A frock-coated gentleman seen holding a scrolled document complete with text. It’s a marriage certificate! The statue was commissioned by his widow, Annie Livingston Saunders, after a lifetime of enduring rumors started by his family and the community that the two had never been married.
Fitting monuments can also be found at several historic mass-burial sites, including one alongside Highway 1 near Grand Isle for victims of the Cheniere Caminada hurricane of 1893. Memorial Park at 2700 E. Opelousas St. in Lake Charles is the grave of many Hurricane Audrey victims and a burial memorial in Shreveport’s Oakland Cemetery recalls the 1873 Yellow Fever epidemic that killed 20 percent of the population there. In Chalmette, site of the January 1815 Battle of New Orleans, the battlefield itself is the unmarked graveyard of fallen British, cut down in numbers too great to allow for kinder treatment, while several markers in DeSoto Parish denote mass burials of Battle of Mansfield casualties.
ACROSS THE STATE
Some contemporary country cemeteries sprawl pleasantly across fields and hillsides but the older ones, especially the shady churchyard cemeteries of rural and small-town Louisiana, have a special appeal. The oldest can be found in the colonial military towns such as Ft. St. Jean Baptiste/Natchitoches, New Orleans, Pointe Coupee, Poste des Opelousas, Poste des Attakapas/St. Martinville and Ft. Miro/Monroe; delicious little churchyards of the later pioneer and antebellum eras are everywhere.
Driving across the northern tier of parishes it’s worth a detour to stroll among the headstones at the 1850s Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches of Keatchie, the mid-1800s Baptist church in little Mount Lebanon, the ’38 Brooklyn Methodist near Chatham or the ’50 Tulip Methodist near Marsalis.
Down through the middle of the state are wonderful little cemeteries at spots such as old St. Augustine’s Catholic in the Isle Brevelle community (built by Augustin Metoyer, the black slave owner regarded as pater familias of Cane River’s famous clan of Creoles of color), old Mount Olivet Episcopal in Pineville, Trinity Episcopal on Bayou Boeuf in Cheneyville, the 1859 Bayou Rouge Baptist in Evergreen (east of Bunkie via Highway 115) and St. Stephen’s Episcopal on River Road near Innis.
Across the southern parishes and down the river roads are old Catholic and Episcopal churches at every crossroads, plus Antioch Baptist (west of Sulphur on U.S. 90 near Edgerly), the 1870 Centerville Presbyterian and the ’49 United Methodist on Bayou Black in Gibson. Highlights of Southeast Louisiana are the famous Grace Church cemetery in St. Francisville (site of the truce granted by Confederate Masons for the burial of a Masonic officer from a Union gunboat) and the town of Jackson with its 1852 First Presbyterian, ’54 United Methodist and ’61 First Baptist.
Alexandria National Cemetery in Pineville dates to 1867 and was first used for re-interring Union soldiers from throughout the region. Some 57 infantry and cavalrymen from three units of the famed Buffalo Soldiers also lie here, plus hundreds of Mexican War-era soldiers re-interred when Ft. Brown and other Texas forts were decommissioned in the early 20th century.
Alexandria National Cemetery in Pineville
Port Hudson National Cemetery, upriver from Baton Rouge and adjacent to Port Hudson State Historic Site, occupies 8.4 acres of the 1863 battleground, where an armada of gunboats and 30,000 Union troops tried for 48 days – the longest siege in American history – to rout 6,800 Confederates from their trenches. When Gen. Franklin Gardner surrendered upon news that the upriver stronghold at Vicksburg had fallen, the 4,000 Union casualties were buried at today’s National Cemetery, while the 500 Confederate dead were buried in the trenches where they had fallen.
Gen. Gardner, like Gen. Alfred Mouton who died at Mansfield, is buried in St. John Church cemetery in Lafayette. They are two of 20 Confederate generals whose resting places (according to a rare 1987 booklet called The Confederate Generals Buried in Louisiana by James A. Mundie Jr.) are scattered about the state including the grave of Gen. Henry Gray in Coushatta and the tomb of Bishop/Gen. Leonidas Polk in the floor of Christ Church Cathedral in New Orleans.
The 7.7-acre Baton Rouge National Cemetery, flanked by Florida and Government streets, was established after Union troops overran the city’s small Confederate force in 1862. One grave is that of Gen. Philemon Thomas, veteran of the Revolution and War of 1812 who also commanded the civilian force that captured the Spanish fort at Baton Rouge in the “West Florida Rebellion” of 1810.
The Chalmette National Cemetery, 17.5 acres adjacent to Andrew Jackson’s battlefield of 1815, contains veterans of every American war, including 113 black soldiers of the famed Louisiana Native Guard. In Grave 4066 lies a brave soldier named Sarah Wakeman who, disguised as a man and using the name Lyons Wakeman, survived the war until ’64 when she died of dysentery.
The highlight of Natchitoches’s annual Sacred Places Tour in mid-March are always the daylight and flashlight tours of the old Catholic Cemetery and 18th century American Cemetery. Scripted by Payne Williams (author of books on those cemeteries and of the Natchitoches volume of the “Images of America” series), the departed will return to tell their tales of adventure, romance and, sometimes, treachery, beginning with town founder Juchereau St. Denis himself (played alternately by former mayors Bobby DeBlieux and Joe Sampite). For lagniappe there’s a reenactment of the American Cemetery scene from Steel Magnolias. (Schedules and ticketing information is available at (800) 259-1714 or www.historicfoundation.com.)
With or without costumed actors, a statesman or military figure from the pages of Louisiana history becomes suddenly very real when you come upon the repository of his mortal remains and a detour that leads you to such an experience is always worthwhile.
Best “Steak Out.” A Sheriff’s car parked at a restaurant is a sure sign of good food! We’ve shared this bit of “Traveler” wisdom before but it’s proved itself again, this time at Moon’s on Highway 9 near Homer. The nice ladies at a shop on the town’s antebellum courthouse square suggested the place but finding the sheriff and deputy both parked out front sealed the deal. It’s an old filling station turned package-store and restaurant where you grab a bench at the wooden tables and choose between bodacious ribs and bodacious ribeye. There’s no wrong choice!
Top Attractions, Old and New. Brig. Gen. Hunt Downer of the Louisiana National Guard promises to restore Jackson Barracks, below New Orleans on the east bank. Also, the Eddie Robinson Museum has opened in temporary quarters at Grambling.
The feds have forked over the lion’s share of funds needed for Jackson Barracks’ hurricane-blasted complex of white-columned brick officers’ quarters, arsenals and castellated observation towers built in the early 1800s. To donate to the museum fund at Grambling, honoring the winningest coach in college football history (408-165-15) who died April 3, visit robinsonmuseum.com, and visit the temporary displays at the campus’s old Athletic Sports Facility.