John Fearn Francis
an Australian Confederate Hero

Courtesy of Jim Gray, Brisbane, Australia

Return to John Fearn Francis (Home)
Return to Battle of Mansfield

 
 

John Fearn Francis was not born in America and arrived there by going "the long 'way around"; by way of England and Australia. The story of his becoming a participant in the American Civil War and the picture that develops of his life and character is one of fascination; and ends with his becoming a Confederate Hero of Mansfield, Louisiana.
 
John Fearn Francis was born John Fearn in England around 1826 and the Fearn family was 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.
 
John Fearn was arrested and later tried on January 4, 1844 and convicted at 19 years of age in York Sheffield, England, supposedly for “receiving stolen goods without knowing they were stolen”, but his Tasmanian Van Dieman’s Land penal colony records state he was arrested for “stealing money and other articles from a person”; his sentence was 15 years in Van Diemen's Land, a prison penal colony now known as Tasmania, Australia. It further states it was his “second conviction and stated this offence was picking pockets money and a parcel”. He also served eighteen months in the Southport Station Gang, prior to being sent to Van Dieman’s Land. His trade at the time was that of a saw smith. When he arrived in Australia, he took the name of John Francis, so as not 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 of service, however, he was given a conditional pardon for good behavior.
 
In July, 1852, John married Ellen Malley, a native of Tasmania, at St. James Old Cathedral in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. His time was spent in the goldfields of Victoria and friends there advised him to go to Louisiana and grow cotton or sugar if he wanted to make a lot of money. So he and his wife Ellen (O'Malley) moved from Tasmania, Australia to Louisiana. The exact date of John & Ellen's arrival in America is unknown, but on September 21, 1857 John purchased two acres of land in Mansfield, Louisiana. The 1860 Census of DeSoto Parish reveals they had a 4 year old daughter named Eliza and a 1 year old daughter named Mary, both born in Louisiana. John and his family eventually moved into the township of Mansfield with their home situated in the center of Mansfield, Louisiana; where some believe he became a “Cutlery Remaker”. That, however, has not been verified, but his family had been in the business in England.
 
John enlisted as a private in Thomas' 28th Louisiana Infantry Regiment, Company B, on March 29, 1862, in New Orleans and John & Ellen's third child, a son named William, was born shortly after his enlistment. Muster roll records reveal John was a male nurse on daily duty in the camp hospital. During September and October of 1863, he was shown as "Absent with leave”; being 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 a Commissioned Officer with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant.
 
Around the time that New Orleans fell to Union forces of Admiral David G. Farragut's fleet, confusion was rampant and all Louisiana wanted to defend against further invasion. Men were recruited 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.
 
Thomas’ 28th Louisiana Infantry Regiment, Francis’ 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. They remained near Vicksburg throughout the summer and fall, continually drilling and doing picket duty. On December 27th the regiment moved to Chickasaw Bluffs, north of Vicksburg, to assist in the defence of the surrounding area. Thomas’ 28th Louisiana Infantry repelled enemy 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. Thomas’ 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, 16 men of Thomas’ 28th Louisiana Infantry were killed and 57 were wounded; the remainder being captured. 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 happened, 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. Eventually 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 their homes. The regiment though, remained in the Alexandria-Pineville area until May, 1865 at which time, it marched to Mansfield, where the men disbanded on May 19th. The muster roll records do not show John Francis' promotion to 2nd. Lt., but the Regimental Roster shows he enlisted as a Commissioned Officer. The Vicksburg pardon document, 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 when the approach of the Union Army from the south, in the infamous Red River Campaign, brought the war to their front door and brought forth every man in Louisiana that was able to fight, forming ranks during the Battle of Mansfield. No loyal Louisiana man would have hesitated to defend his home and family from the invading Union Army, so, like all able bodied men of Mansfield, John participated even though he was not an "official" member of any unit at the time. Local history relates Francis cared for the wounded of Confederate and Union forces alike as they were brought to the church in town, which had been converted into hospitals. John was probably one of the few, if not the only man in town, with experience in battlefield nursing; having been a Confederate male nurse.
 
Several colleges, churches and homes in Mansfield became battlefield hospitals. The most severe cases of both sides were taken to the Baptist Church. John E. Hewett recalled that; "At dark on the eve of the tenth, one of the nurses lighted a candle and holding it in one hand attended the patient with the other, but the delirious patient struck down the candle and the light, catching the loose cotton used as bedding, set it on fire, and in a moment the flames filled the building. To save the wounded from death by burning, the men who were in Mansfield rushed in and carrying the patients through the fire or casting them out of the windows saved about 200 soldiers from a horrible death. As the rescuers were about to abandon the work, a young Creole Confederate soldier suffering from slight wounds and a young Union soldier arrived upon the scene and answered the wild calls for help from within. The fatigued rescuers joined them and another dozen of the men were saved from the flames." The Baptist Church was burned to the ground.
 
Many wounded soldiers were rescued, some being thrown from windows. Several died in the fire, some being the rescuers including John Fearn Francis who was said to have been tending the worst of the wounded; dieing and giving his life in an attempt to rescue the wounded from the burning building. The descendants of John Fearn Francis, however, today relate the family story that John died fighting a fire when a cannonball struck the roof of his home. After plotting the positions of the batteries, and the location of the Francis’ home, however, it was determined that such would not have been possible because of the distance. But there was a fire in Mansfield though and the victims of the fire were buried in a corner of the City Cemetery, close to the church. According to the Mansfield Historical Society, there are some ten unmarked graves, in that part of the cemetery, closest to where the Baptist church once stood.

John was said to have been buried in the Mansfield City Cemetery, Special Section, which includes 10 unmarked graves of soldiers killed in the Mansfield Battle. 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 dead Federal soldier on the marker of a fallen Confederate soldier; so the Mansfield Confederates were buried without headstones; presumably for that reason. That practice was documented by many in Louisiana and other states during the period.
 
On April 8, 1864 Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Bank's Red River Expedition advanced about 150 miles up Red River and Maj. Gen. Richard Taylor, without any instructions from his commander, Gen. E. Kirby Smith, decided that it was time to try and stem the Union drive. Like many important battles, the Mansfield-Pleasant Hill engagement was actually a series of encounters taking place over several days. Taylor therefore established a defensive position just below Mansfield, Louisiana near Sabine Cross-Roads, an important communications center. On April 8th, Banks Union force approached, driving Confederate cavalry ahead of them. For the rest of the morning, the Federals probed the Rebel lines and in the late afternoon Taylor, though outnumbered, decided to attack. After a two-hour cavalry fight with Union forces near Wilson's Farm on April 7, 1864, General Taylor elected to defend a site about four miles south of Mansfield, now the location of the Mansfield State Historic Site. General Hanks did not expect the Confederates to fight until he reached Shreveport, so the Union army had become stretched out along the narrow road leading to the town of Mansfield. That allowed Taylor to deal with his opponents on more equal terms, since the Confederate troops were heavily outnumbered.
 
Taylor’s men made a determined assault on both Union flanks, rolling up one and then another of Banks divisions. Finally, some three miles from their original contact, a third Union division met Taylor's attack at 6:00 pm and stopped it, after more than an hour's fighting. That night, Taylor unsuccessfully attempted to turn Banks right flank and at 12 p.m. on April 8th, the head of the now disorganized 5,700 man Union army was confronted by 8,800 men of the Confederate army in battle formation. The Union troops quickly formed a line of battle along a rail fence and a ridge known as Honeycutt Hill; and on orders from Taylor, General Alfred Mouton's Division charged the fence. Mouton was killed leading the attack, but French born General C. J. Polignac, along with other Confederate forces, continued the attack and overwhelmed the Union line. Banks withdrew, but met Taylor again on April 9th at Pleasant Hill. A fresh unit of 1,700 Union troops formed another line of battle; about a mile south of the first. After a brief encounter, Taylor and his Confederates routed the Union forces, taking many prisoners and seizing guns, small arms and wagons abandoned by fleeing soldiers. The Union army rejoined the navy in Natchitoches and began their long retreat down the Red River. Mansfield was the decisive battle of the Red River Campaign, forcing General Banks forces to retreat back towards Alexandria. There were 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 this date and no records are found for John Francis after the Battle of Mansfield on April 8, 1864. John, however, was said to have died during the period of the Battle of Mansfield, while caring for the military wounded of both armies.
 
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 of the “Great Britain”, which departed from Liverpool, England, in February, 1866 and arrived 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 Fearn Francis died for the heritage of America, protecting the South and caring for the wounded and his family had 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, William Fearn-Wannan, 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 Francis’ marriage certificate, signed by John Francis and witnessed by an individual named Fearn, possibly a brother, and the rolls of a Louisiana soldier named John Francis match exactly, validating the fact that Francis was the alias used by John Fearn Francis. Much of the personal information of John Fearn Francis used herein 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 Fearn Francis.

In March 2007 after much research and confirmation, James Gray, a Confederate descendant himself and a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, with the American Civil War Roundtable of Queensland, Inc. of which he is a member, enlisted the assistance of Mr. David Hill, Commander of the Lt. General Richard Taylor Camp # 1308 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans of Louisiana, and an official military headstone was acquired from the American Veterans Administration for placement on the gravesite of the Australian hero John Fearn Francis; as he was known at the time of his death. With the assistance of Mrs. Alice Holtin, the back of the headstone was to be inscribed with information denoting that John Fearn Francis was an Australian; who died a hero and gave his life in the service of others.
 
There is a yearly period Civil War encampment, complete with authentically uniformed soldiers and equipment held at Mansfield State Historic Site. Members portray Confederate soldiers in a typical encampment setting, which include camp life, drill and daily soldier life. The program helps the visitor visualize mid-19th century history in a way that brings it to life and makes it real, and gives them a sense of what it was like for Civil War soldiers in the field. Mansfield State Historic Site is located three miles south of the town of Mansfield, on State Hwy. 175. The park can be accessed east/west via U.S. Hwy. 84, or north/south via I-49. The site is the scene of the 1864 Battle of Mansfield, a Civil War engagement involving almost 30,000 troops. In addition to Louisiana troops, almost 10,000 Texans were engaged in the battle, the most Lone Star soldiers in any single battle of the Civil War. The park includes a portion of the Mansfield battlefield, a walking trail and monuments. The park museum contains an audio-visual program, exhibits, artifact displays and restroom facilities. Information on Mansfield State Historic Site can be attained by calling the park at 872-1474 or toll free in the U.S. at 1-888-677-6267. Information can be acquired on their website, www.mansfieldbattlefield.org.
 

Above all, we should always remember the sacrifice made by John Fearn Francis, an Australian immigrant who served the Confederacy gallantly and gave his life in an attempt to save the lives of both Confederate and Union wounded soldiers alike.

Return to John Fearn Francis (Home)     Return to Battle of Mansfield