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Vol. 19, No. 3: Civil War

Elegy for the Native Guards

by Natasha Trethewey

                              Now that the salt of their blood
Stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea . . .
—Allen Tate

We leave Gulfport at noon; gulls overhead
trailing the boat—streamers, noisy fanfare—
all the way to Ship Island. What we see
first is the fort, its roof of grass, a lee—
half reminder of the men who served there—
a weathered monument to some of the dead.

Inside we follow the ranger, hurried
though we are to get to the beach. He tells
of graves lost in the Gulf, the island split
in half when Hurricane Camille hit,
shows us casemates, cannons, the store that sells
souvenirs, tokens of history long buried.

The Daughters of the Confederacy
has placed a plaque here, at the fort’s entrance—
each Confederate soldier’s name raised hard
in bronze; no names caved for the Native Guards—
and Regiment, Union men, black phalanx.
What is monument to their legacy?

All the grave markers, all the crude headstones—
water-lost. Now fish dart among their bones,
and we listen for what the waves intone.
Only the fort remains, near forty feet high,
round, unfinished, half open to the sky,
the elements—wind, rain—God’s deliberate eye.

Bounty Everlasting: Poetry from 25 Years of Southern Cultures

This poem is featured in Bounty Everlasting. Read all 25 for free.

Natasha Trethewey is the author of six poetry collections, including Native Guard, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize. She served as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2012 to 2014, and is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

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