Book Review: Miserable Little Conglomeration: A Social History of the Port Hudson Campaign

Miserable Little Conglomeration: A Social History of the Port Hudson Campaign. By Christopher Thrasher. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2023. Hardcover, 403 pp. $45.00.

Reviewed by Sean Michael Chick

Port Hudson was among the longest and most complicated campaigns of the Civil War, surpassed by Vicksburg and Petersburg, but little else. It was also likely the most photographed campaign, or at least its siege phase was, as attested by any search of the Library of Congress’ online collection.

However, until now, Port Hudson has attracted only three major books covering the campaign. The first was Edward Cunningham’s The Port Hudson Campaign, 1862–1863 (published in 1963), a short and easy to read overview. Following twenty years later were two rambling volumes by David C. Edmonds, which he filled to the brim with anecdotes. These made the twin books easy and enjoyable read. Edmonds’ books remain the best studies for understanding the actions of Nathaniel P. Banks between David Farragut’s defeat on March 14, 1863, and Banks’s own advance in Bayou Teche.

Then came Lawrence Lee Hewitt’s Port Hudson: Confederate Bastion on the Mississippi (1987). Hewitt wrote a detailed account of Port Hudson’s creation and placed it within its strategic context, although he covered almost nothing after the failed May 27, 1863, assault. Christopher Thrasher’s Miserable Little Conglomeration: A Social History of the Port Hudson Campaign is the latest overview study and is quite possibly the best overall.

As the book’s subtitle indicates, Thrasher takes a social history approach to the subject. Thrasher has past experience with social histories. His previous book, Suffering in the Army of Tennessee: A Social History of the Confederate Army of the Heartland from the Battles for Atlanta to the Retreat from Nashville, examines that army from the perspective of ordinary citizens and common soldiers. In Miserable Little Conglomeration, the great personalities are present making decisions; they hardly cannot be in a war narrative. Yet, while the decisions of commanders Franklin Gardner and Nathaniel P. Banks receive mention, they are not analyzed in great detail; nor are tactics. This study is not a traditional military history in the vein of, say, Earl J. Hess or even Timothy B. Smith, who often weaves soldier accounts into his battle analysis. And while readers still get a good overview of the campaign and its command decisions, that is not the focus of the book.

Miserable Little Conglomeration is a “bottom up” history. It is about the experiences of the soldiers and civilians who lived it. Port Hudson is a rich subject for this type of study because of the variety of events during the campaign. There was the naval action of March 14, daring cavalry raids, tedious sieges, mutinies, starvation, disease, and grand assaults. No perspective or angle is favored over others; Thrasher allows the people involved to speak for themselves.

Race is important here in particular because Port Hudson featured the first use of black soldiers in a major campaign and battle. Sadly, there are few firsthand accounts from the Louisiana Native Guards, but Thrasher discusses how the other soldiers, Union and Confederate, reacted to their May 27, 1863, attack. One picture that emerges is of a Union army just as skeptical and racist after the May 27 assault as before. The narrative that the courage of black soldiers impressed white soldiers might be true at Petersburg and Nashville, but not at Port Hudson.

Miserable Little Conglomeration is a solid read, and Thrasher knows how to use evocative quotations. All the more impressive is the voluminous research that supports the book. This is particularly beneficial as Union sources generally outweigh Confederate accounts in most Civil War books. However, here it seems more balanced. Thrasher also weaves the accounts that he located into a fine history of the campaign itself. Events outside the campaign also receive mention, such as the drive into Bayou Teche and Richard Taylor’s daring capture of Brashear City.

Christopher Thrasher’s Miserable Little Conglomeration is possibly the best book on the Port Hudson Campaign. Superbly researched, it encompasses the entire campaign. As such, this study, although a social history, is comprehensive and straight forward. Hopefully more historians follow Thrasher’s model for future campaign studies of such scale and complexity.

2 Responses to Book Review: Miserable Little Conglomeration: A Social History of the Port Hudson Campaign

  1. Well done review. I would, however, add two books to your list of Port Hudson books that I have enjoyed – The Longest Siege: Port Hudson, Louisiana 1863, Russell W. Blount, Jr. (McFarland 2021) and Port Hudson: The Most Significant Battlefield Photographs of the Civil War, Lawrence Lee Hewitt (UTP 2021). It’s gratifying to see that Port Hudson, long in the shadows due to Vicksburg, is getting more scholarly attention recently.

    1. Did not know about The Longest Siege: Port Hudson, Louisiana 1863 but I will read it for sure.

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