The remembrance—and mere distant recollection—of a former slave who has joined the Army. He was born into slavery in Louisiana 33 years before. The marks of the whip used to be the ink that told his story, but with freedom has also come his ability and power to record the rest of his story into a journal.
We learn that the former slave is not actually allowed to fight in the infantry. As part of the supply unit, he digs trenches and bears heavy loads. A colonel referred to the tasks that supply units do as “nigger work.” The fact that he receives only half the rations of white soldiers seals the connection between his job and his slave labor. To get things like the very journal he is writing in, he pilfers from Confederate homes that have been fled. In fact, much of the journal is actually the handwriting of its original diarist.
A ship called the Northern Star has delivered him to Ft. Massachusetts somewhere along the Gulf Coast where the heat is oppressive, the sand deep and waves big enough to toss great ships around.
A second entry from the same month brings bad news: supplies that had not been secured were washed out to sea in a storm. The hard labor brings with it a sense of fellowship when he joins in the singing led by an older man who reveals the scars left by the lashes of his master’s whip. The short term loss has brought it with a long-term lesson of great value: what he doesn’t want to lose, he must tied down.
The narrator takes note of the irony of situation: black men are now charged with keeping guard over white men. The status of these Confederate prisoners is furthered deepened as a thing of irony by the realization that the only reason they have now lost their freedom is that they want to war to fight for the right to preserve their freedom. The final great irony is that the illiterate white soldiers are dependent upon the freed slave to write letters back home and though filled with suspicion that he writes more than they dictate, they have no recourse but to affix their signature in the form of an X and hope for the best.
Examples of what is actually contained in those letters he writes for the prisoners are provided and they extend from the empty pleasantries of asking their beloveds how they are getting along to memories of their sight of those beloveds they still cling to. Other letters have the intent of reminding those back home to make sure harvest enough for lean times while still overs provide visceral descriptions of the smells and sights of war.
On the day they bury the last of their brothers-in-arms that died in Pascagoula, the soldier admits every death results in a greater share of hardtack to be shared by the living. The horror of the conflict becomes manifest through two opposing images: the number of men who were killed after it seems as the fighting was done and the colonel’s response to all this death as “an unfortunate accident.”
The grim and brutal reality of exactly how much—or how little—the acquisition of freedom really means become unforgettably apparent when news arrives of a battle at Port Hudson which claimed the lives many black soldiers. The response to this news by General Banks may be even worse than the news itself: he has no dead there and so the bodies can be left to rot. Despite the lack of respect and the hard work and half-wages, however, new recruits comprised of recently freed slaves never stop. Their worn, tired and skeletal appearance is all the explanation needed: they have nowhere else to go.
The former slave reveals the name of his master from those days: Dumas. Dumas may have been master, but he was also his teacher. From Dumas, he learned to read and write. During his work tending the garden, he learned to study nature closely enough to replicate the birds and plants he studied in his sketchbook. The comparison is drawn between his slave labor which afforded him the ability to study living things and his job as a free man in the Army is to deal only with the dead. He tends graves and writes letters to loved ones of those buried in the graves. His instructions for these letters are to give not much more than the time and place of the death, but he is aware that some details need an accounting more than mothers.
We are now made privy to some of those details which need accounting for. A slaughter of troops who were surrendering. The black massacre at Ft. Pillow. A renaming of their unit to Corps d’Afrique which he suggests was done for the purpose of distancing them from their claim to being native Americans. The dead at Gettysburg left to be consumed by wild hogs on the battlefield. Unmarked graves, unanswered letters and untold stories of the contribution by black soldiers in the battle to secure their own freedom. And as the bones of the battlefields crumble and decay and the green vegetation reclaims its proper place, the forgetting continues. This is truth that is told that must not allow the truth that must be told to completely disappear from memory.