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Callaloo 24.4 (2001) 1194-1197



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Native Guard

Natasha Trethewey


The 1st regiment of the Louisiana Native Guard was mustered into service on September 27, 1862, becoming the first officially sanctioned regiment of black soldiers in the Union Army. Shortly thereafter, in October and November, the 2nd and 3rd regiments, made up almost entirely of men who had been slaves only months before, were mustered and sworn in to service. During the war, the Fort at Ship Island, off the coast of Gulfport, Mississippi, was maintained as a prison for Confederate soldiers--military convicts and prisoners of war--manned by the 2nd regiment of the Native Guard. Among the second regiment's ranks was Francis E. Dumas, the son of a white Creole father and a mulatto mother. Although Louisiana law had prohibited him from manumitting the slaves he had inherited after his father's death, when New Orleans fell to the Union, Dumas freed them and encouraged those men of age to join the Native Guards.

--from The Louisiana Native Guards,
by James G. Hollandsworth, Jr.

1862

This first morning I awake to freedom--
a heady taste in my mouth, much like the wine
Master poured last night toasting our new lives.
He had stood before the fire, his skin
more golden in the flickering light, then
raised his hand, and flung the silver goblet
I'd shined a thousand times into the flame.
Gasping, I lurched forward as if I would
retrieve it. He chided me then, laughing
at my domesticity. Join with me,
he said. You are all exiles from your past
and you must fight to enter your future.
Cheers arose from within the throng of us--
his faithful servants, now enlisted men. [End Page 1194]

         ***
Faithful servants, we enlisted men now
follow Master through New Orleans, leaving
home, those women we might have called our own
--disorder all around us in the streets.
We are careful to still appear as slaves
for the ladies who would swoon protest, or
men who would spit at our feet. It's easy
to avoid calling Master his new name,
hard as it is to adjust to our role
as soldiers--and him an officer, one
of the first in the new black regiment.
Freedom has yet to put its shine upon
the dullest among us still singing songs
harkening back to what we've left behind.

         ***
We've left behind all I know of this world--
the mundane efforts of a life I thought
would never change! And now I stand here
facing the Gulf, its distant horizon--
the only thing between us Ship Island,
the first sure stop on my uncertain path.
Tomorrow we depart, leave the mainland
with enough supplies to fill our camp, raise
an outcrop of buildings to block the wind.
Tonight the sky glows red with the promise
of good fortune. What I know of freedom
is this: how it came at once, then over
and over--my lungs filling with new air,
dawn arriving pink as new flesh, unfettered.

         ***
Today, dawn red as warning. Unfettered
supplies, stacked on the beach at our landing,
washed away in the storm that rose too fast,
caught us unprepared. Later, as we worked,
I joined in the low singing someone raised
to pace us, and felt a bond in labor [End Page 1195]
I had not known. It was then a dark man
removed his shirt, revealed the scars, crosshatched
like the lines in my journal, on his back.
It was he who remarked at how the ropes
cracked like whips on the sand, made us take note
of the wild dance of a tent loosed by wind.
We watched and learned. Like any shrewd master,
we know now to tie down what we will keep.

         ***
We know it is our duty now to keep
white men as prisoners--rebel soldiers,
former 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
see us as slaves. They have yet another
prison--some of them neither read nor...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6512
Print ISSN
0161-2492
Pages
pp. 1194-1197
Launched on MUSE
2001-11-01
Open Access
No
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