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December For the slave, having a master sharpens the bend into work, the way the sergeant moves us now to perfect battalion drill, dress parade. Still, we're called supply units— not infantry—and so we dig trenches, haul burdens for the army no less heavy than before. I heard the colonel call it nigger work. Half rations make our work familiar still.

Native Guard

We take those things we need from the Confederates' abandoned homes: salt, sugar, even this journal, near full with someone else's words, overlapped now, [End Page ] crosshatched beneath mine. On every page, his story intersecting with my own. January O how history intersects—my own berth upon a ship called the Northern Star and I'm delivered into a new life, Fort Massachusetts. A great irony— both path and destination of freedom I'd not dared to travel. 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 Today, dawn red as warning.


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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 I had not known. It was then a dark man removed his shirt, revealed the scars, crosshatched like the lines in this 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.

Native Guard Background

February 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 [End Page ] would have us slaves. Some neither read nor write, are laid too low and have few words to send but those I give.

They are cautious, dreading the sight of us, wary of a negro coming to take down their letters.

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  6. Natasha Trethewey. Emory University. Poem Elegy for the Native Guards Now that the salt of their blood Stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea.

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