“Native Guard” is the title poem of the Natasha Tretheway’s 2006 collection of verse. The title of the poem itself is derived from the true story of a Civil War regiment composed of free slaves originally conscripted to fight for the Confederacy, but who managed to escape into the protection of the Union Army.
These escaped slaves eventually wound up in the service of the Union Army permanent stationed off the coast of Mississippi guarding Confederate prisoners of war on Ship Island. The poem is structure as a series of dated entries in a journal spanning a timeline from November 1862 through the end of the war in 1865. Although structured in diary form, the entries do take the form and meter of a poem. In fact, they take the form of one of the most rigidly structured of all poetic forms, the sonnet. As such the journal the Native Guard soldiers becomes a sonnet sequence that gives a narrative description of what life was like on Ship Island for the former slaves.
The description of what life was ultimately becomes the theme of the sequence and what lends it the power making it worthy of becoming the anchor of an entire collection. The journey from slave to soldier and from bondage to freedom is revealed to be a short one taking place within environments that are distressingly similar. The same loss lack of dignity and respect afforded the soldier back on the plantation is replicated on the island. Generals treat the deaths of black soldiers in infantry units as unworthy of the respect awarded white soldiers dying on the battlefield alongside them.
The strength of the poem as the centerpiece of the collection could no longer be denied in 2007, when the anthology earned Natasha Treheway the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.