The U.S. Civil War is a topic that all Americans are aware of, at least in some sense. The fact that slaves played a pivotal role in this time is well known. Yet, for thousands of black men that fought for the Union, oftentimes dying, their story was largely forgotten. In her 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry book, Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey – the 19th Poet Laureate of the United States – gave life to the story of an all-black regiment that kept an eye on captured white Confederate soldiers. They were stationed on Ship Island in the Gulf Coast, and were not treated the same way as their white comrades. Through the writing of a literate, but nameless, guard, the toils of war are told through his eyes. In the multi-part poem, which mirrors the book’s title, Trethewey’s fictional character, a former slave, composes journal entries over a more than two year period. Although the soldier was born nearby and is considered a free man, he feels the tight grip of his past still holding him. Guarding white prisoners, the role of the jailer now seems reversed; he imprisons men who would have no qualms about owning him. This intelligent and literate soldier shows that the power of the written word is an equalizer, which frees the mind from bondage.
For a former slave, the sweetest word, whether heard, written, or spoken, would be freedom. However, the poem’s narrator knows that he cannot simply forget his past; thus, he progresses forward the best he can, by penning his new memories in ink. In this way, he now solidifies this chapter of his life in a definitive way on paper. Comparing this with the scars on his back from lashings, he explains;
thirty-three with history of one younger
inscribed upon my back. I now use ink
to keep record, a closed book, not the lure
of memory — flawed, changeful — that dulls the lash
for the master, sharpens it for the slave.
(Trethewey, “November 1862” 9-14)
As if having the memories of enslavement are not enough of a reminder, he has scars on his back from lashings. The guard’s use of the word inscribed is certainly telling. Masters benefited from their slaves physical labor, so in most cases there was no need for those workers to know how to read or write. In fact, most slaves were illiterate. The guard, perhaps surprisingly, reports that his former master was “fair”, and also reveals, “He taught me to read and write” (“August 1864” 114). In a strange twist of fate, the guard now benefits from this teaching as a “free” man. One day, he was working with other soldiers around the beachfront. He sees an unfamiliar soldier and recalls, “It was then a dark man / removed his shirt, revealed the scars, crosshatched / like the lines in this journal, on his back.” (“January 1863” 49-51) Though not words on a page, the man’s scars also tell a familiar story; yet, the marks are only part of that story and can never fully define the man. The “closed book” that the narrator creates accurately relays the drama of that moment in time.
For the writer of this diary, he sees that all people are slaves to a master, one which is indifferent to skin color. He had no choice in being a slave, as he was born into it. But did he have much choice in joining the battalion? He was really just a “free” man in the technical sense, and would not have had many options. By joining the Native Guards, he found a common bond with those who had a shared history. Seeing a similarity between his old life and new, he explains, “For the slave, having a master sharpens / the bend into work, the way the sergeant / moves us now to perfect battalion drill, / dress parade.” (“December 1862” 15-18) It is all about doing what the master wants and how they want it done. Of course, the sergeant takes orders from someone, who reported to a higher up, and so on and so on. The narrating guard does not see himself in the same light as a slave master, when it comes to guarding the prisoners. In interpreting the situation, he says;
We know it is our duty now to keep
white men as prisoners — rebel soldiers,
would-be masters. We’re all bondsmen here, each
to the other. Freedom has gotten them
captivity. For us, a conscription
we have chosen — jailors to those who still
would have us slaves. (“February 1863” 57-63)
This former slave, knowing the evils of being owned and abused, just sees himself doing his duty while treating the prisoners like human beings. Both he and the prisoners are serving a master, and are, in a sense, indentured. The rebels and their guards, while serving the military, have very limited freedom of movement. He notes the ironic nature of how he solidified his life as a free man by recalling that he was brought to his assignment on a ship called the “Northern Star” and that the fort bears the name Massachusetts. As a slave it would have been a dream to escape to the north. He realizes that he, and everyone else, are directed by a powerful master. He observes;
Here, now, I walk
ankle-deep in sand, fly-bitten, nearly
smothered by heat, and yet I can look out
upon the Gulf and see the surf breaking,
tossing the ships, the great gunboats bobbing
on the water. And are we not the same,
slaves in the hands of the master, destiny?
(“January 1863” 34-40)
When he was younger, merely a piece of property, he was like a boat lost in a Gulf storm. He had no control over his movement, and could have “drowned” and never surfaced. For both black and white troops, they are beholden to the same great mover of people; the white commanding officers, the black guards, and the rebel prisoners are all being corralled by the hand of destiny.
While the weary journal writer knows, all too well, the unfairness of being born a person of color, he — through Trethewey — feels the duty to leave a record of what needs to be remembered. The gift of literacy is the enabler for a powerful message to be left to posterity. During his years of military service he sees countless tragedies and injustices. He reminds, perhaps a future reader, of, “slaughter under the white flag of surrender — / black massacre at Fort Pillow; our new name, / the Corps d’Afrique — words that take the native / from our claim” (“1865” 128-131). He wants people to know that at Fort Pillow, black soldiers were not treated by the Confederates with the same dignity as might have been afforded to white soldiers. He and others like him knew that the Confederate soldiers despised them the most, because of what they symbolized; freedom. Yet, he and the other guards showed their white prisoners some level of dignity. The narrator, being born in America, was a native to the land. This country is all he knows. The changing of his battalion’s name to the “Corps d’Afrique” is yet another insult to these freed men who are willing to die fighting for other’s freedom. Even worse, the decision comes from their supposed Northern benefactors. As the fictional narrator within the poem, “Native Guard”, he wants his story to be told. Through this character, the poem’s author, Natasha Trethewey, is boldly giving voice to those who lost theirs. In a 2010 interview at the University of Missouri with Marc McKee, an assistant professor in the Department of English, she talked about the importance of preserving the true memory of the past. She explains;
. . .there is an argument I have with the nation and national memory, I’m guilty of the exact same thing. When I don’t put a tombstone on my mother’s grave, when I don’t evoke her name and speak it, I’ve erased her. I haven’t erected a monument; I have not tended to, as my own native duty, her memory… a poem is a living monument — it lives and breathes each time it’s spoken, read, heard. (McKee 149-50)
Just as she performs her duty in upholding her mother’s memory, she shows that individuals must also inform others of a shared history. It is a living testament, which, containing both positive and negative, tells of struggles for justice. For Trethewey, the fact that the history of the Native Guard, including the personal sacrifices and triumphs of the men, were largely forgotten, was an injustice. The poem’s readers can finally discover the story of this black regiment, through the eyes of one who has lived as an African-American. Unlike many of the stone monuments in the South, that omit parts of the war, she has created a living monument through the character in her poem.
For the Confederate soldiers that were locked away on Ship Island, their loss of freedom was both physical and mental. The journal writer, as well as any other literate guards, showed an equal or greater intelligence to their prisoners; they helped to free the words locked away in the minds of the jailed. In fact, some of the Confederates were not very extremely learned, even though they generally had better access to education than blacks. The narrator recounts;
Some neither read nor write,
are laid too low and have few words to send
but those I give them. Still they are wary
of a negro writing, taking down letters.
X binds them to the page — a mute symbol
like the cross on a grave. I suspect they fear
I’ll listen, put something else down in ink.
(“February 1863” 64-70)
These white soldiers, who were taught to distrust all blacks, rely on their guards to uphold what is now their greatest freedom; it is the ability to communicate with those family and friends that solidify normal life. The story’s narrator continues, “I listen, put down in ink what I know / they labor to say between silences / too big for words” (“March 1863” 71-73). Although the inmates are correct in assuming there are extra words being written down, the guard is, of his own volition, trying to help them. The guard, who was once a slave, has an emotional understanding of these sad silences.
Ultimately, the nameless narrator who wrote down the legacy of his black battalion was successful in his native duty, even if he would never be treated as an equal. He saw the power of the pen. Although he had the scars of the past on his back, he moves forward to the best of his ability. He conscientiously observes all that is going on around him, thinking about it really means to be a free man. Even though his battalion is charged with watching over the jailed Confederates on Ship Island, they don’t necessarily see the captured as being that much different than them. They have all, in some fashion, been subjugated. Perhaps, after relying on the black guards to mark down their thoughts, these white southern men can begin to see them simply as men. As an exceptional author of African-American descent, Trethewey has done a great service for the country, by presenting the story of these Native Guards. She has helped to seal a fracture in the nation’s memory.
by Aaron J. Schieding
(Originally written October 27th, 2014)
McKee, Marc. “A Conversation with Natasha Trethewey.” The Missouri Review 33.02 (Summer 2010): 149-50. Web. ENGL419, Blackboard. 18 Oct. 2014. PDF.
Trethewey, Natasha D. “Part II: Native Guard.” Native Guard. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 25-30. Web. ENGL419, Blackboard. 17 Oct. 2014. PDF.