Chapter 9

 

Like patches of sunlight streaming through dark clouds, the sun alights behind a veil of forgetfulness. Piercing through: fragments of memory. Beams etched in my mind.

Two days after we bury Jed, we float the Mississippi to New Orleans where we ship Southwest.

We land on Brazos Island, a desolate outpost at the southernmost tip of Confederate-controlled Texas. Three to four thousand federal troops share a five-mile long, three-mile wide parched isle, blunted by the clamorous waves of the Gulf. 

The port is crucial to the war effort. Federal occupation of this obscure island makes trade between Confederate and foreign nations difficult, asphyxiating the flow of commerce through the gulf, a conduit of much-needed revenues for the South.

Occupation is mere prevention.

Our primary duty consists of marking time.  

Army mules now. We spend our days burdening crates. Fatigue duty expands to unloading ships. Sea spray and salt air, corrosive to weaponry and will. Merciless upon our backs, the sun. The contemptuous wind. The sea’s billowing rage. 

Though we occupy the entire island, the mainland is controlled by rebels. By the vast amount of supplies requiring unloading, rumors persist we are preparing for an invasion. Across the shore, rebel troops are fortifying for the attack even though the thick fog of war is dissipating all over the South. News of Confederate losses annex Texas as the last battleground for resistance.

Ahead, on the mainland, the memory of Louisiana’s sweltering scorn is eclipsed by the reproachful furnace of the Texas desert. Undulate ripples of heat. Acrid, bitter swells across dry rolling hills and crevassed valleys. Red rock ignited by swollen sun. Deep crevices of red-caked rivulets cascading toward scattered scrub. And the scorn of thousands of rebel troops swirling in red dust. Everywhere, everything is scorched or eroded. 

War circumstances make strange bedfellows. Colonel Branson invites me into a colloquy with Major Hudson over the men’s progress. The oak grove where we corral the horses offers shelter from the sun. Bared roots, thick and gnarled, cling to an incline that affords an expansive view of the port below. We visit among the ancient trees, one of the few spots of shade on the entire island. 

Major J. K. Hudson, an abolitionist from Ohio, rests in the arm’s crook of the largest oak, his face obscured by the cover of a book. He is almost always a functioning adverb, if he is not on a horse, he is in a book. The man knows not how to loiter. If not agitating his awkward, wiry frame about, he moves his mind. His father published one of the most radical abolitionist journals in print, The Anti-Slavery Bugle. When the call for soldiers sounded after the fall of Sumter in ‘61, Hudson, his father, and brothers, were of the first to sign on. 

Colonel Branson watches me inspect the hooves of his beloved horse, Apple. Lifting Apple’s hind leg, I glance at Branson in response to his silent inquiry -years of living with a mute will convince you that a man's face can translate a thousand thoughts-, “The men remain unstirred, sir”. 

“But surely they know the risk? A bleak world without the command of words?” He is knifing through a long stick, occupying his hands with smooth strokes, the whittled wood chips curling to a fall.

“Louisiana, sir. Too many graves. Warped their will. Most have grasped the basics, as you’ve ordered. They’ve learned their letters.”

“That is not enough,” Hudson retorts, shifting his weight and steeling a gaze at me over the top of his book for emphasis, “not enough.”  

“No, sir. It is not.”

The port hums a mellifluous din in the distance. Soldiers’ voices buoy upon the wind. Colonel Branson leans back upon the hind legs of his chair, pausing between long scythes to watch a ship berth against the horizon, the jut of his pipe lodged in its stony grip.

The soil of Shiloh clings to him. Thousands wounded or killed. He is troubled by the slain. Though a man of arms, he seeks alternate routes. “Literacy of soul,” he says, “warfare of mind.” He is passionate about the men’s learning, perhaps even more than I. 

The two men lend me books: Milton, Shakespeare, Greek and Roman philosophers (Branson’s affinity is Emperor-soldier Marcus Aurelius), Thackeray, Dickens. I devour them. They may but grace my hands for a moment. I consume as one famished, knowing not when the next meal comes.

We join an unspoken fellowship, among the inanimate, lifeless letters that occupy our mind. Our common mission is beyond merely making unlearned men in our regiment learned. We are led from within the pages we turn, injunctions from a former time.

Unknown to us, we fight a pernicious prejudice. A prejudice that will prevail for decades (as Du Bois would state many years later), “we daily hear that an education that encourages aspiration, that sets the loftiest of ideals and seeks as an end culture and character rather than bread-winning, is the privilege of white men and the danger and delusion of black.” 

The delusion of blacks. This is the nascent form of slavery emerging from emancipation. Freedom with constraints. Conditional liberty. Stillborn within the chrysalis. 

“Ignorance is shackles of mind and heart,” Hudson’s head pops from behind the book, chasing a voice that’s swells loud and shrills in insistence. “What freedom can be found if ambition, and desire remain repressed? Repulsed, even? If the men do not throw off these chains of ignorance then the insouciant negro remains complicit.” 

I agree, but Hudson’s abolitionist heart betrays him. I admire him for his conviction but sometimes the mission overtakes the man. He barks as if I’m a child, speaking louder as to a deaf, complicit in pity. Pity extends from him who has everything to him who has nothing. Pity is thought without action, a hopeless compassion. Pity be damned. I am not a mission. Not a subject. Not an object. Not a collective. I am I.

“Have the beatings continued, Sargeant?”. Colonel Branson feigns a soldierly, disinterested tone.

“No, sir. Stopped after the order.” A short pause. “The men remain bitter.”

Branson winces. He knows I am griot among the men. They will listen to me but will not abide in words if they are forced to do so. Most of the men yearn for education, but learning amid the conditions of soldiering is weary work. Some of the officers resort to violence to comply with regimental orders, beating lazy soldiers, punishing laggards. A corporal flogs a soldier with his riding crop for failing to follow written instructions. A private from Indiana refuses to read and is forced to dig a six-foot by six-foot hole to the taunts of officers claiming he burrows his own shelter. 

Hudson’s voice piques from behind his paper shroud, “Don’t hope for Plato’s Utopia, but be content to make a very small step forward and reflect that the result even of this is no trifle. Marcus Aurelius.” 

His petulant grace wearies me.

Colonel Branson’s knife halts mid-whittle. His eyes fix on a figure approaching swiftly in the distance. The runner’s stride is deliberate but measured. No panic precedes him, merely duty. Major Hudson sets aside his book. 

A salute. “Colonel Branson, orders from Colonel Barrett.”

Branson opens the order, reads. Holding the paper between his fingers, I see the question carve upon his features, brow crinkling, eyes narrowing to slits, a silent “Why?”. 

Branson casts a glance at Hudson, “Major, assemble the men.”