Thursday, January 6, 2022

Review - "Port Hudson: The Most Significant Battlefield Photographs of the Civil War" by Lawrence Lee Hewitt

[Port Hudson: The Most Significant Battlefield Photographs of the Civil War by Lawrence Lee Hewitt (University of Tennessee Press, 2021). Hardcover, photos, maps, image credits, notes, bibliography, index. Pages:xl,392. ISBN:978-1-62190-483-0. $49.95]

Lawrence Lee Hewitt is the professional historian most closely associated with Louisiana's Port Hudson Campaign. In addition to serving as the first manager of the Port Hudson State Historic Site and authoring one of the best books on the topic (from LSU Press, 1987's Port Hudson, Confederate Bastion on the Mississippi)1, Hewitt has been collecting photographic images from the campaign for more than forty years now. The collection has reached such a high content number that Hewitt long believed Port Hudson to be the war's most photographed battlefield before challengers intervened and successfully convinced him otherwise. Still, being the third-most photographed battlefield2 is notable for one of the conflict's less-heralded campaigns, one that remains greatly overshadowed by its celebrated companion operation conducted just up the Mississippi. A great many of these carefully curated images are compiled in the stunning new volume Port Hudson: The Most Significant Battlefield Photographs of the Civil War.

The answer to the question of why so many Port Hudson photographs involves many factors, including the operation being the war's longest siege and the battlefield's relatively short distance from New Orleans affording both access to photographers and abundant time for them to perform their laborious work. Hewitt organizes the book chronologically, with sections devoted to the biographies and activities of the six Port Hudson photographers that left their rich collections to posterity. The most notable contributions were made by William D. McPherson and his partner A.J. Oliver. Though initially drawn to the area for commercial reasons, McPherson and Oliver came to be hired directly by Union army commander Nathaniel Banks and were granted wide access to the front to photograph the siege and its aftermath. The author suggests that there might have been ulterior motives behind General Banks's desire to thoroughly and publicly document the operation, and that does seem like a very strong possibility. It has often been said that Banks craved the presidency, and images that powerfully conveyed both the immense strength of the Port Hudson defenses and the general's own successful siege efforts in overcoming them could be very useful to him for future political campaigns.

In a background section that critically informs readers of erroneous captions and common mistakes made (such as horizontal flipping of images), Hewitt provides readers with a very helpful analysis and appraisal of Port Hudson's photographic legacy in the existing literature. Also of interest is the author's discussion of the many trials involved in getting a book like this published. Obviously, a tome containing all of the hundreds of Port Hudson Campaign photos collected by Hewitt could not be affordably printed and priced (especially given the king's ransom demanded by some rights holders for reproduction), the Hewitt graciously credits the team at University of Tennessee Press for successfully negotiating the process and providing him the opportunity to make available a still pretty hefty 173 figures. Some of the originals are in rough shape but are included for details that can be seen and for their historical significance.

The part of the collection that was able to be published is remarkable in its range. In it readers will find numerous CDVs and photographs of individuals and groups along with equally numerous images of officer quarters, unit encampments, hospitals, graves, churches, civilian buildings, soldier barracks, earthworks of all kinds (among them trenches, lunettes, detached works, forts, and siege batteries), battle detritus, both intimate and panoramic views of the riverfront and battlefield landscape, and loads and loads of cannon. Hewitt organizes this assemblage into smaller groups that he in turn identifies and labels on clear maps for reader orientation. Captions are extensively researched and provide both historical context and fascinating discussions of technical and artistic achievements. The latter go far in justifying the merits of the book subtitle's claim regarding the collection's exceptional importance.

Of particular historical noteworthiness are many of the McPherson and Oliver photographs. According to Hewitt, the pair captured the only image we have of a Confederate army surrender ceremony in progress (see Fig. 23). Their work also affords early examples of skillfully executed combination printing and, as the author alleges, attempts at nighttime (or very low light) and time-lapse photography. While the equipment technology of the period did not allow actual movement to be shown without ruinous blurring, Hewitt believes a group of their photos represent the first photographs of troops "engaged" in battle. Photographs in figures 6-11, 13-17, and 19-22 were all taken during the active siege (thus, in Hewitt's estimation, technically "in action"), and Fig. 17 depicts infantry manning a trench cavalier separated from the enemy by only 40 yards. Port Hudson was not the first time black troops saw combat during the war, but the May 27 assault was the first major battle that they participated in, and the book contains a valuable photographic record of the men of the Louisiana Native Guard and where they fought. A photographer also captured images of the Port Hudson school for black soldiers established there.

A sturdy hardcover securely bound in landscape format of roughly 8" x 10" dimensions and printed on heavy, photo-friendly paper stock, the book gets a handsome presentation worthy of its significance. The publisher also deserves a great deal of credit for releasing it at a price point affordable for libraries and individual collectors alike.

Port Hudson should appeal to many readerships. First off, it is an essential new contribution to a Port Hudson Campaign historiography that still lags well behind that of its Vicksburg partner. The book is also a uniquely valuable addition to the libraries of Civil War photography enthusiasts, researchers, and collectors. Additionally, students of Civil War fortifications and artillery will reap major benefits from the volume's rich collection of images along those lines. Very highly recommended.

1- The standard campaign overview remains Ed Cunningham's The Port Hudson Campaign, 1862-1863, which was published in 1963 and remains in print today in paperback format. While Cunningham's classic is very bare bones by today's standards, David Edmonds's The Guns of Port Hudson (2 Vols, 1983-84) is exhaustive by comparison. You can count yourself fortunate to have that long out of print set in your home library, though in the 25 years since I first encountered them I haven't given the pair a second reading to see how well they hold up. From 1986, there's also William Spedale's Where Bugles Called and Rifles Gleamed. After a long gap, more recent developments include a 2012 title from Dennis Dufrene Civil War Baton Rouge, Port Hudson and Bayou Sara: Capturing the Mississippi, content from Donald Frazier's Blood on the Bayou: Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and the Trans-Mississippi (2015), and Russell Blount's The Longest Siege: Port Hudson, Louisiana, 1863 (2021). I have not read or even seen the Spedale, Dufrene, and Blount books, so I can't comment on any of those. All of this plus Hewitt's books together comprise a pretty solid library, though there remains room for an updated comprehensive treatment along the lines of what Timothy Smith is currently doing for Vicksburg.
2 - According to the author, in conjunction with establishing an unexplained set of rules and discussions with Civil War photography archivists and experts, Chattanooga, with its thousands of battlefield photographs, is the clear winner of the crown. Brandy Station (surprisingly) comes in second place making Port Hudson a very close third, although Hewitt believes that developments subsequent to those determinations might have already pushed Port Hudson past Brandy Station. It would be interesting to hear what other parties have to say about this.


  1. Drew:

    This is truly a unique achievement by Lawrence Hewitt, representing a lifetime of work in collecting these images. His preface is intriguing and rises above the usual workmanlike prefaces usually found in Civil War books. I would note that some of the photographs in this book found their way into Roy Blount’s new book, The Longest Siege, that you cite in your review and which I just read a few weeks ago. Thanks for your review shining a light on Hewitt’s book and putting it at the top of your best CW books of 2021 list.

    John Sinclair

  2. Spedale's book is heavily illustrated with modern (1960s-70s) photos, and is mostly about the various relics he and others found near the battlefield with metal detectors. Not too much about the siege itself, but it's interesting to see all the things he found, along with many winter views of the earthworks 50 or so years ago.

    Joel Manuel
    Baton Rouge

    1. Joel,
      Are his other books written in the same vein? I thought about picking up his Baton Rouge book a long time ago but never did.

    2. The one on Baton Rouge is more about the battle itself, as is the one on Fort Butler, if I remember correctly.


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