Book Review: Port Hudson: The Most Significant Battlefield Photographs of the Civil War

Port Hudson: The Most Significant Battlefield Photographs of the Civil War

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.”

Whoah!

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.

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4 Responses to Book Review: Port Hudson: The Most Significant Battlefield Photographs of the Civil War

  1. Lyle Smith says:

    I will be buying this.

    I’m wanting to try my hand at writing about some of the minor ancillary events surrounding the siege of Port Hudson, but not finding a wealth of resources. Need to look around more.

  2. John B. Sinclair says:

    Thanks, Steve, for bringing this wonderful book to everyone’s attention, which I have read. I just toured Port Hudson two days ago. The state has a nice visitor center there and some well-preserved earthworks. There is a new book on Port Hudson published just last year – The Longest Siege: Port Hudson, Louisiana, 1863 by Russell Blount. Just 155 pages of text, but it is very readable and a good, solid introduction to the campaign, including the siege.

  3. BOB HARWELL says:

    Thank you for making me aware of this. I will try to obtain a copy.
    My great great grandfather George W. York and two of his brothers survived the siege. He was an officer and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner. His enlisted brothers were paroled and went home.
    He may have been one of the last casualties of the conflict. His hearing was severely damaged by artillery fired by both sides. In the early 1900s he apparently did not hear warnings an off schedule train was approaching and was struck and killed walking near the tracks in Acworth, GA.

  4. Charles Morganti says:

    I grew up in the vicinity of Port Hudson. I have the other books and will be getting a copy of this one soon. In the early 1960’s when the battlefield was still a wilderness I found a large heavy piece of cast iron which I thought was a piece of cannon barrel due to the shape. Decades later I carried it into the museum at Port Hudson showed it to the guy running the place and was informed it was a “piece of a hundred pounder fired from the Parrot rifle on the USS Richmond”.

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