By Lawrence Lee Hewitt
University of Tennessee Press 2021 $49.95 hardcover
Reviewed by Stephen Davis
Compared to Vicksburg, a hundred-ten miles upriver, Port Hudson, Louisiana has a sparse body of scholarship. Edward Cunningham’s The Port Hudson Campaign, 1862-1863 (1963), David C. Edmond’s two-volume The Guns of Port Hudson (1983-84) and Lawrence Lee Hewitt’s Port Hudson: Confederate Bastion on the Mississippi (1987) are pretty much it. The latter’s what-if observation on the campaign bears mentioning: if Banks had not committed to a siege of Port Hudson and instead marched to join Grant at Vicksburg in late May (as Halleck wanted), he would have taken command as senior major general and gotten credit for taking the river fortress and thus “blocked Grant’s rise to general in chief.”
Not only did Dr. Hewitt write his dissertation at LSU on the Port Hudson Campaign, but he became the first manager of the Port Hudson State Historic Site. Beyond that, to judge by the Preface of this fine, enjoyable book, he’s been locating and identifying photographs of Port Hudson for most of his adult life. More than 170 of those images are reproduced here, in clear, sharp form. Some of them have never been published.
The author’s subtitle is more than hype: the criteria of quantity, diversity and uniqueness justify his characterization of Port Hudson images. In number, only Brandy Station and Chattanooga have been photographed more often. The Port Hudson cache is also more varied than other large collections, featuring not just battlefields, troops, fortifications and ordnance, but also destroyed property, fugitive slaves, U.S. Colored Troops, Confederates in the field and POWs. Of particular note, Hewitt presents the only photograph of a Southern army surrendering. (On July 9, some 5,500 Confederates were capitulated.)
Of the seven cameramen whose work is featured here, William D. McPherson and A. J. Oliver are prominent; the Army hired them to photograph the Port Hudson battlefield. A Port Hudson Signal Corps Photo Laboratory was established in 1864, headed by William R. Brooks and Abraham I. Blauvert. That none of these cameramen are as noted as Brady, Gardner, Barnard and others adds further value to Dr. Hewitt’s work.
The author’s captions are excellent; he locates the photos on site maps, and quotes officers and men who wrote about the various settings. The extent of his research is shown, for example, by his caption for Fig. 77, a wrecked Confederate 24-pounder: “Taken to West Point, the gun was scrapped for good in 1943.”
Sometimes, however, it’s the smallest mote that sticks in one’s eye. Here, it is the author’s characterization of the late Frederic E. Ray as a “comic book artist.” True, Ray was illustrator of the Superman Chronicles in the 1940s. But he was also art director for Civil War Times Illustrated for twenty years, and author of “Our Special Artist”: Alfred R. Waud’s Civil War (1994). C’mon, Larry!
I can think of only a couple of other books on Civil War photography that focus on cities and their fortifications: James A. Hoobler’s Cities Under the Guns (1986) and Jack Thomson’s Charleston at War (2000). With this stellar work, Hewitt’s Port Hudson climbs to the top of the list.