Frazier, Donald S. Blood on the Bayou: Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and the Trans-Mississippi. (State House Press: March 2015). 500 pages, 125 illustrations, 30 maps, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-1-933337-63-0. $39.99 (Cloth)
Blood on the Bayou, the third installment in what is called Frazier’s Louisiana Quadrille, begins “This is not the book I intended to write.” I am a big fan of this series: three years ago I wrote a glowing review of the previous book, Thunder Across the Swamp. So I was really looking forward to Blood on the Bayou, so much so that I worried my expectations were too high such that I was bound to be disappointed. I was not. This was absolutely the book I hoped for. But I understand what Dr. Frazier was getting at in his opening remark, and in a way this was not the book I expected to read.
One of the things that I like so much about Frazier’s books is the quality of the writing and editing. Frazier has talent as a writer. He skillfully sets scenes and paces action well. He moves smoothly from the big picture to the personal anecdote. The handling of personalities and perspectives feels balanced. The research seems both broad and deep. The editing and publishing is also well done. The maps are clear and simple, yet informative. The book is full of photographs and lithographs that enhance the reading experience. And I did not find my reading enjoyment disrupted by editing issues. These are things I expected from this book, and my expectations were met.
Knowing the general scope of the book, I also expected to read thrilling accounts of the Confederate’s capture of Brashear City, their failed assault on Fort Butler, and the battle at Koch’s Plantation. All of that was there. Despite the title of the book, Port Hudson and Vicksburg happen off stage, mentioned only in passing. The heart of the book is a 250-page stretch from Chapter 5 through Chapter 15 that covers the six week campaign in the La Fourche region of Louisiana as the Confederates attempted to disrupt and distract the Union forces from the seige of Port Hudson. In a war with large battles like Gettysburg and Chickamauga, the action in Louisiana was comparatively very minor. But there was still real drama in these fights and Frazier brings them alive.
But, as he confessed, this was not the book he intended. The study of history is a process in which one researches sources and filters information in order to reveal the past. In so doing, Frazier developed a new understanding of the role of slavery, and particularly the slave population, in the war. The nature of the war had changed by mid-1863 but also Frazier’s understanding of the forces at work has changed. Much more so than his previous work, this book deals with the social and economic upheaval that resulted from the war as the existing slave system fell apart.
Thus Blood On the Bayou begins with chapters that cover the same chronological periods contained in the previous two books — in fact some of the maps and quotes are exactly the same — but with added detail and emphasis on the evolving situation of the slave population of Louisiana. This aspect of the war is so critical to the region because of the large concentration of slaves along the lower Mississippi: the main action of the book takes place in an area in which the slave population heavily outnumbered the free. Throughout the rest of the book, Frazier reminds the reader about the status and dynamics of this population as the contending armies fought back and forth over a relatively small area, literally and figuratively tearing down the old order. Frazier seemed concerned at how this aspect of the book would be received, writing “I expect that many will find fault with my conclusions.” I don’t think that concern was necessary. The book is much richer as a result of the work Frazier has done. The war was a very complicated and messy event and I applaud Frazier for digging in to this complexity.
There is another, related, way in which this is not the book I expected. When Frazier’s series was first described, it was indicated that this book would extend through early 1864. But telling the story of the summer of 1863 took more space that he seems to have expected and the book ends in August. So I want to close with a plea (and with the hope that he might actually read this): Dr. Frazier, I implore you to reconsider the Quadrille. It was clever idea, likening the war in Louisiana to a four part creole dance. But you have placed yourself in a tight spot. Thunder Across the Swamp and Blood on the Bayou each only cover about 4 months of the war. There is still close to two years of war left and yet only one more book planned. Please consider splitting the remaining time between two books — make the series a quintet. In past announcements, the next book has been called Death at the Landing, an obvious allusion to what happened at Blairs Landing during the Red River campaign. I feel there is too much of substance between the end of Blood on the Bayou and the Red River campaign that the intervening time should be handled in a separate book. There have been books that cover parts of this time period [Cotham’s Sabine Pass, Lowe’s Texas Overland Campaign, Townsend’s Yankee Invasion of Texas] but none that ties it all together as you can.
Regardless of what Dr. Frazier does next, I look forward to it.