The Bookshelf: The Civil War Diary of Freeman Colby

Jul 22, 2016

The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. 

If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week, The Bookshelf features New Hampshire illustrator Marek Bennett.

The most famous images of the American Civil War may be the daguerreotypes of sullen, surly soldiers from the North and South and those horrific images of battlefields littered with bodies of the dead and wounded. Images like these tend to bring history to life.

In his new graphic novel, Bennett has created images that attempt to bring the Civil War to life in a new way. His illustrations—hundreds of them—are inspired by the diary of a New Hampshire teacher named Freeman Colby, who joined the Union Army when he was in his early twenties. The book features hundreds of images to accompany a story told more than 100 years ago. It’s called The Civil War Diary of Freeman Colby.

Marek Bennett’s Top 5 Book Recommendations:

1. Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. "For me, this graphic novel was foundational in starting to figure out what exactly IS this medium we call 'comics'...  McCloud uses comics to explore comics, with thought-provoking chapters on art styles, panels, time in visual art, text-image interaction, and more."

2. Hardtack & Coffee, or, The Unwritten Story of Army Life by John D. Billings. "I consulted this book frequently while working on Freeman Colby.  Billings describes every aspect of camp life in the Union Army, from bugle calls to hardtack recipes, from tent arrangements to disciplinary proceedings.  Every last detail is something Colby might have experiences at one point or another during his service!  The numerous illustrations by Civil War veteran Charles W. Reed proved equally valuable in my research for Colby, providing essential visual details that did not appear in any reference text."

3. The Civil War Told by Those Who Lived It. (Library of America) "This four-volume set helped me to establish an overall context for all my period research.  It contains primary source material representing an astonishing variety of voices -- from eyewitness diary entries to political speeches, from petitions of slaves to official governmental records, military reports, and private letters -- all captivating reading, and essential context for understanding both our past AND present situation."

4.   Our War by Mike Pride. "I love Mike Pride's approach here -- examining the Civil War close-up, through the experiences of 50 different Granite Staters personally involved in it.  Each chapter acts as a short story in itself, and taking them all together we get some sense of the variety and scope of the conflict and its impact on common people from all around the state."

5.   The Photographer by Emmanuel Guilbert. "Emmanuel Guibert works with his friend, photographer Didier Lefevre, to portray Levefre's account of a 1986 "Doctors Without Borders" mission to Afghanistan.  Alternating between Lefevre's documentary photographs and Guibert's rough-hewn cartoons, the story constantly reminds us of the reality and humanity underlying each page.  This remains one of my favorite graphic novels; it's an inspiring example of a cartoonist taking somebody else's narrative (and visual material) and crafting it into a gripping graphic novel."

Who was Freeman Colby and how did you find his diary?

Freeman Colby was a guy from Henniker, New Hampshire. He was born in the 1840s, and came of age in the 1850’s and ‘60’s. I’d always seen his name on a street around town. There was a “Freeman Colby Road” on the other side of town from where I live. That’s all I knew about him—that he had a street named after him.

Then one day I was looking through some boxes of Civil War materials in the Henniker Historical Society, and this packet of pages fell out. It said, “Civil War Diary of Freeman Colby.” I just casually started flipping through it. That’s how I found his story.

Why were you searching in the Historical Society in the first place?

I’m a cartoonist. I’m always looking for good stories. This was a few years ago, and I had just gotten back from Eastern Europe. I was drawing a graphic novel about local history there. That got me interested in local history from around New Hampshire.

I realized I had walked by the Civil War memorial in my town a lot, and although I’m interested in the Civil War, I had no idea what the stories were behind those names on the memorial. A different paper might have fallen out of the box on a different day and I might have gone in a different direction. But somehow I found Freeman Colby’s, and I couldn’t put it down.

Something that struck me about the story was how natural of a storyteller he is. He uses such precise detail, he has a sense of drama, and he knows how to quickly paint a vivid picture of the people in his life. Did that strike you as well?

Yes. He got me in the first paragraph, where he sets up who he is and why he’s involved in the Civil War. Technically it’s not really a diary, because from clues in the text and details of his life, it actually seems like he must have written it about 40 years after the war. So there’s a good deal of composition going on.

Clearly he had some reference to the letters he wrote: he wrote letters about the Civil War every day and would send them home to Henniker. Many of those still exist. He must have been referring to those to get the details, because the details are day-to-day, specific details about weather and events. Because he’s doing it many years later, he’s able to go back as an author—a very eloquent author—and put it into some form. What I’m eternally grateful for Colby for not doing here is really flowering it up the way a lot of late 19th century accounts would. He tells it in very spare language.

Yes, he’s very direct. He also spares us details of Civil War battles. It doesn’t seem like he was as part of that. But he does talk a lot about life with other soldiers, and life under the command of flawed human beings. That was one of the most fascinating parts for me—hearing about the interdepartmental strife.

It’s interesting—there are so many levels of strife and contention going on in a war. In the case of this book, like you say, there aren’t a lot of battle details, because this is really just the first nine months of his service. And then he did serve for another three years, actually, and he was in some major battles where he saw real combat.

This book covers his introduction to his military service. In the beginning, he was a teacher in Henniker. He describes working in these single-room classrooms. He was a substitute teacher working in schoolhouses all around town—there were a dozen or more of them. He said, several times, “I stepped in to finish the terms of teachers that had left their school rooms by the windows because of the fighting going on in the classrooms. He says at the beginning of the book, “I was fighting with the students every term. The students expected to open up the term with a fight between the teachers and the scholars.” He had to constantly prove himself.

So he started looking for something promising better returns. He leaves the teaching business and ends up enlisting in the 39th Massachusetts Volunteers, which, as a teacher, was something that really spoke to me. It told me something really amazing about the school system back then. It also spoke to who he is as a character. He is someone who will not back down at all. He finds himself in a Massachusetts Regiment, and to him the Massachusetts guys might as well be southerners, because he’s got to prove that he’s a New Hampshire man and he’s going to get fair treatment no matter what. And that really sets the tone for the rest of his life in this New Hampshire Regiment.

How many images are in this book?

As many as it takes, to paraphrase Lincoln.

I think the way I went at it, I sort of tricked myself into doing the book. I started on page one and said, “This is a great account of life in a one room school house in 1860.” And then I said, “Ok this is a pretty neat account of enlisting in a regiment and what it’s like.” And then I said, “This is a pretty great account of traveling through New England into Washington D.C.” Each step, I was thinking, “and then I’ll set this down and I won’t do the diary itself. It’s 30-some pages. I’m not going to do every detail of what he writes about.” But then each step would get me interested in the next.

That’s the job of the cartoonist. As you’re drawing one picture, you want to get the reader interested in the next. Like if he’s walking, the bayonet is pointing at the next panel, so your eye can just slip into the next panel. And when you get to the edge of the page, and it says, “little did we know . . . “ And you have to go to the next page.

I found he was already doing that to me in the story. I felt like I was going through the story with him. I just kept breaking up his ideas into cells and panels. I had to move quickly, otherwise this would have taken years and year—it took a couple years as it was. If I quickly drew what he was describing or hinting at or what I thought it meant, that would get me interested in what happened next. Before I knew it, I was sitting down with the whole transcript, working through every page. I thought, “I’m not going to exit this now; I’m going to use this whole text.” And that’s what the book ended up being.

So what in the text of Freeman Colby’s diary was most difficult to draw?

The hardest scenes were the ones where I’d start drawing and then get so interested that I realized I really needed to do a little research before I finished it. I needed to figure out what was specifically going on in these pictures. Because when you read a sentence, you think you’re creating a picture in your mind. But usually you’re not—you’re creating a blurry sense of what’s going on. When you sit down with black ink and a white page, suddenly you realize, “Oh wait, where were they? What did their uniforms look like? What was piled behind them, and how close were they standing?” You have to decide all this stuff. The only way I found to get traction on some of these scenes was to go back into the Library of Congress archives, pull up images, photos, and other artist drawing from the time period.

You ask about one that was difficult to draw: one of the biggest difficulties of working with historical material as a cartoonist is that cartooning is not life-like realistic drawing. I have no idea what Freeman Colby looks like. I never found a picture of him, and I didn’t look very hard because, in a way, it doesn’t matter. I drew him as a circle with two dots and a line, and that’s his face. If he had a big nose, or a mustache, or three eyes, that might make him less readable to the reader.

But then when he describes a camp scene, I have to be careful of making a drawing that is simplified by my own historical understanding. An example of that is page 254. He says, “Two or three days later, there came a perfect deluge of boxes for the boys—nearly every one of them had one.” So they’re getting this big wagon load of boxes for the holidays from home. It’s all their holiday gifts and they are so excited to get them. So I drew all these stick figure boys running out to the wagon to get them. I thought, “Great, they’re all Massachusetts guys: they’ll all have the little square heads that mean they’re from Massachusetts. And I can draw a little round-headed Freeman Colby in there, and that’s my cartooning shorthand. I included a lot of these reference images in the back of the book.

During my drawing process, I looked up an illustration by Charles Reed in Hartack and Coffee, the Billings account of life in a Union Regiment, and I looked closely at that image. It’s in the back of the book here in the index, and the guy driving the wagon is African American. Some of the soldiers also appear to be African American. It’s a line drawing and they’re really small, so it’s hard to see. That image made me question everything I had assumed about this Massachusetts camp, because there are people there that maybe Freeman Colby didn’t mention. And if I just go along with my baseline understanding of what the history was, I might be leaving some people out.

Little things like that made me realize that even when it’s easy to draw a scene, I need to be careful. As an artist, I need to have a contextual understanding and to have read a bunch of other accounts to figure out what Freeman Colby is leaving out.

There’s tons I’m leaving out, and you have to. I can’t draw everything. As a cartoonist, I have to leave stuff out, but I have to get the important stuff in that does represent what was going on. That includes things that Freeman Colby didn’t think were important, but that I do.

Your interest in the Civil War extends beyond this book. You are actually in a band that features music from that era. Tell us about that band.

We formed a few years ago, thinking we’d play songs from the North and songs from the South, and look at the Civil War from both sides. The more we looked into the music (and this is true of all art work), the more we realized how this is a complex grouping of perspectives and beliefs and politics. The music really represents that. Any given song brings that out and sends you in all these different directions.

The moment you learn one song, you realize music is an accumulation of an encounter between cultures. The rhythm, the melody, the words, the meaning of those words, and the people performing them. It all is encounters between cultures. The banjo, for instance ( I play banjo), is an Afro-Caribbean instrument. The music that is played on it was being played by African Americans, Irish Americans who were learning from those African Americans, lots of immigrant groups, and some native New Hampshire-ites playing the banjo.

Freeman Colby wasn’t a musician so he doesn’t really mention music at all in his account. But I know that that music was there. I know that that music really represented what people did when they came together from different backgrounds. So beyond just North and South, you also have the spirituals, all the work songs, and the commercial songs that were being circulated in songbooks or on sheet music, between the soldiers and between the field and home.  It gives us a much broader understanding of what people were saying, and what it sounded like in addition to what it looked like. If I just looked at photographs of the Civil War, I’d get a sense that it was this black and white, still thing that happened long ago. But when I hear the music, it’s something that’s in the room right now.