'An Australian Hero'
The Hero of Mansfield, Louisiana
Many brave Australian's who participated in wars prior to World War I are today forgotten individuals; lost in the reams of Australian history. One such Australian is John Francis Fearn whose last act in life was that of giving up his own life to save the lives of both his comrades and his enemies.
John Fearn Francis was not born in Australia, but became an Australian citizen and afterwards left Australia for the United States to make his fortune. In the process, he ended up fighting to protect the States Rights of the State of Louisiana, with the Confederate States Army, in the American Civil War; where he voluntarily gave his life saving others and became known as one of the 'Hero's of Mansfield'.
John Francis Fearn was born in England around 1826, his family being well-known and respected, having made a name for themselves in the cutlery industry. England in the early 19th Century was over crowded, people often lived in squalor and every opportunity was taken by the existing government to reduce its population; by removing as many as possible, especially those of the lower classes.
John Fearn was arrested and later tried and convicted by an English Court, for receiving stolen goods; 'without knowing they were stolen'. His sentence was 15 years in 'Van Diemen's Land', a prison penal colony today known as Tasmania, Australia. When he arrived in Australia, John took the name of John Francis, so he would not to bring disgrace on his family back in England. Records indicate that John worked on Rocky Creek Convict Station in northern Van Diemen's Land, a base for convicts sent to clear land for the Van Diemens Land Company. After seven years service, however, he was given a conditional pardon for good behavior.
In July 1852, John married Ellen Malley, a native of Tasmania, at the St. James Old Cathedral in Melbourne, Victoria. Much of his time was spent in the goldfields of Victoria and friends there advised him that if he wanted to make a lot of money he should go to Louisiana in the United States and grow cotton or sugar. Heeding their advice, John and his wife Ellen (O'Malley) moved from Tasmania, Australia to a plantation in Louisiana. The exact date of John & Ellen's arrival to America is unknown, but on September 21, 1857 John purchased two acres of land in Mansfield, Louisiana. The 1860 Census of DeSoto Parish reveals at that time they also had a 4 year old son named Eliza and a 1 year old daughter named Mary, both born in Louisiana. John and his family eventually moved from the plantation into the township of Mansfield, their home being situated in the center of Mansfield, Louisiana, where he became a 'Cultery Remaker'.
When the State of Louisiana and his home became in danger of being invaded by northern troops, John enlisted as a private in Thomas' 28th Louisiana Infantry Regiment, Company B; on March 29, 1862, in New Orleans. John & Ellen's third child, a son named William, was born shortly after his enlistment. Muster roll records reveal John was a male nurse assigned to regular duties in his camp hospital. During September and October of 1863, however, John was sent home to collect clothing for his company, as part of a detail sent back for uniforms and clothing. During his period of service John was eventually promoted to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant.
Around the time that New Orleans fell to the Union forces of Admiral David G. Farragut's fleet, confusion became rampant and all Louisiana wanted to defend against further invasion. Men were recruited and quickly and formed into units, one being the 28th Louisiana Infantry Regiment; consisting of two separate units bearing the same designation. The first was formed by Col. Henry Gray organized in May 1862; the second formed by Colonel Allen Thomas on May 3, 1962. Both were formed, around the same time without the knowledge of the other; on opposite sides of the Mississippi River. Gray's was formed first and retained the 28th designation while Thomas' 28th became known as the 29th Louisiana Infantry Regiment while retaining the 28th Thomas' designation.
ThomasÕ 28th Louisiana Infantry Regiment, FearnÕs unit, was organized at Camp Moore on May 3, 1862, by the addition of five companies to a battalion formed by Thomas for state service. They left for Vicksburg, Mississippi, on May 20th, arriving on the 21st. During the first Federal attack on Vicksburg from May 18th through July 27th, the regiment did picket and guard duty near Warrenton; south of the city, remaining near Vicksburg throughout the summer and fall. On December 27th JohnÕs regiment moved to Chickasaw Bluffs, north of Vicksburg, to assist in the defense of the surrounding area. ThomasÕ 28th Louisiana Infantry repelled Union attacks on December 28th and 29th, with 9 men killed, 25 wounded, and 9 missing. After that they had a period of inactivity until the beginning of the Siege of Vicksburg, on May 19, 1863. ThomasÕ 28th originally occupied trenches on the Confederate left flank near Fort Hill, but on May 22nd they moved in support of General John H. Forney's division, during a major Union assault; after the attack, returning to their old positions.
During the Siege of Vicksburg, 16 men of ThomasÕ 28th Louisiana Infantry were killed, 57 were wounded and the remainder was captured; including John. They were eventually paroled after their surrender, on July 4, 1863 when the Confederate stronghold fell to the Federal army under Ulysses S. Grant. After signing the document of Pardon, some of the men of the 28th Regiment, along with other regiments began a long overland march to Enterprise, Mississippi; near the Alabama and Mississippi border. There, on their honor, they remained in a "parole" camp. They were "fed, clothed and provided for" by the Confederate government, with no Federal guards present while they awaited their eventual exchange and return to active duty. That only occurred once an equal number of federal prisoners were accumulated for their exchange. After months in the camp many of the men were sent home, while others were re-assigned to the ranks of other Confederate units.
After being reassigned, they were allowed a short furlough
home before returning to their regiments in the summer of 1864. Many however,
chose not to return to duty and remained at home. The regiment remained in the
Alexandria-Pineville area until May, 1865 at which
time it marched to Mansfield, where it was disbanded on May 19th.
The muster roll records do not show John Francis' promotion to 2nd. Lt., prior to or at the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. The Vicksburg pardon document, however, dated July 7, 1863 does indeed show that John Francis signed the document as a 2nd Lieutenant. The "Surrender and Pardon document" dated July 7, 1863 at Vicksburg was signed by 2nd Lt. John Francis, Co. B., 28th Thomas' Louisiana Infantry Regiment.
The spring of 1864 found John at home in Mansfield, Louisiana on the Moss Plantation, three miles from John's property on Crosby Street, when the approach of the Union Army from the south, in the infamous 'Red River Campaign', brought forth every man in Louisiana that was able to fight; forming ranks prior to the Battle of Mansfield. No loyal Louisiana man, especially one who had withstood the Siege of Vicksburg, would have hesitated to defend his home and family from the invading Union Army, knowing all would be lost or burnt. So, like all able bodied men of Mansfield, John participated in the battle even though he was not an "official" member of any unit at the time. It is known though that during that battle he was killed. Local Louisiana history relates at the height of the battle, John acting in a medical capacity, was caring for the wounded of Confederate and Union forces alike as they were brought into the 3 churches in town which had been converted into hospitals. John was probably one of the few, if not the only man in town, with any experience in battlefield nursing.
The worst of the injured were placed in the largest of the three churches and a nurse was checking patients during the night carrying a candle lantern. The beds for the soldiers had been made of bales of hay and one Union patient in delirium was said to have gone beserk during the night and knocked the lantern from the nurseÕs hand, smashing the oil lantern and igniting the dry straw; which set fire to the church. Many of those working in the hospital, as well as citizens and soldiers, rushed to the scene to fight the blaze. Many wounded soldiers of both sides were rescued, some by being thrown from windows. Several patients and rescurers, however, died in the fire; including John Francis Fearn, who was tending the worst of the wounded and trying to save them all from the fire. Victims of the fire, both soldiers, patients and rescuers, were quickly buried in a corner of the City Cemetery, close to the church; as the battle was still being waged.
John was buried in the Mansfield City Cemetery, Special Section, consisting of 10 unmarked graves of soldiers killed in the Mansfield Battle, since Confederate graves, if found by Union soldiers would have been desecrated or destroyed. When federal soldiers came upon burial sites of marked Confederate dead, the desecration of the grave was commonly done as an additional insult to the family of the soldier. It was also a common practice to place the name and unit of a Federal soldier who had died on the marker of a fallen Confederate soldier; a practice that was documented by many in southwest Louisiana during the period; so the Mansfield Confederates were buried without headstones.
Eventually the Union army retreated and rejoined the navy in Natchitochcs to begin their long retreat back down the Red River.
Mansfield was the
decisive battle of the Red River Campaign, forcing General Banks army to
retreat back towards Alexandria. It was a Louisiana victory that resulted in
2,900 Union and 1,500 Confederate casualties.
The muster roll records do not show that John Fearn Francis participated and was subsequently killed at the Battle of Mansfield on April 8, 1864. All records regarding John Fearn Francis cease as of that date and no records are found for John Francis after the Battle of Mansfield on April 8, 1864. After the surrender, the new government required that tutors, or guardians, be appointed for all children of deceased soldiers. As such, Ellen Francis and W.S. Donaldson were appointed as guardians for John's three children; Anola Mary, William, and John. John Thomas was born January 10, 1865 and his father never knew about him. Somewhere between 1860 and 1865, their oldest child, which appeared on the 1860 census, had died. In November 1865, Ellen Francis sold their property on Crosby Street and left Louisiana for England where John's family lived. Ellen's and the children's names, given as Fearn, next appeared on a Ship's Passenger List for the "Great Britain", which departed from Liverpool, England, in February, 1866 and arrived back in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, in March, 1866.
After returning to Australia, Ellen met and married Alexander Wannan and John's three children took the name Fearn-Wannan; which their descendants bear to this day. John Francis Fearn died protecting the South and caring for the wounded of both the Confederacy and the Union; his family having to go on without him. The descendants of the men with whom he fought, American, English, Scottish, Irish, Australian and others are richer for the price he paid. One descendant, Bill Fearn, also known as Bill Wannan, was the great-grandson of John Fearn and author of the book "Australian Folklore". John Fearn is not listed in the Louisiana rosters nor is he listed in the index of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, but the signatures of Fearn's marriage certificate and the rolls of a Louisiana soldier named John Francis match exactly, validating the fact that Francis was the alias used by John Francis Fearn. Much of the personal information of John Francis Fearn used here was found in the book "Fearn Family History -- A Snyopsis" compiled by Alan Daley and Howard Fearn-Wannan, November 1995. Mr. Michael Wannan and his son James Fearn-Wannan. are also descendants of John Francis Fearn.
Australia, Louisiana and future generations should never forget the heroic nature of John Francis Fearn, a son of Australia, who went to America to build his fortune and gave his life trying to save the lives of others. John Francis Fearn is truly an Australian Confederate hero to be remembered.