Freeman Colby was a young schoolteacher from New Hampshire who joined the Union Army during the American Civil War. For the first nine months, Colby kept detailed notes of his service and wrote to his family members. Marek Bennett of Henniker drew on these rich resources for his graphic novel, The Civil War Diary of Freeman Colby. In that volume, Bennett stuck close to Colby's exact language. Recently, he's published Volume II, in which he takes some liberties and draws on new sources for inspiration. NHPR's Peter Biello sat down with Marek Bennett to talk about Volume II.
The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
So what drew you back to Freeman in his story?
I think the incompleteness of it. He wrote this diary and then I spent a couple of years drawing it out. And then I realized it was only the first nine months of his service and that he served for the final three years of the Civil War. And I was curious about what happened. But I kind of figured, "Well, he didn't write it down. I'm never going to know." And then I had the opportunity to find out what happened. So I took it.
So what was that opportunity? How did you find out?
Initially, when I put the first book out (the diary itself) one of his great grandchildren contacted me and said, “Hey, I found this book and I just read it. That's my great grandfather. Would you be interested in some letters of his that he wrote during the Civil War?” I said, “Yeah, of course, I'll trade you some books for some letters.” And I sent her a couple books and she sent me about 70 or 80 pages of transcribed letters that Freeman Colby had sent home. And then I had a sense of where he was and what he was doing for 1863, ‘64 and ‘65.
So what were some of the surprising things that you found in those new sources?
The first thing I noticed was it still wasn't the full story. It was one letter from May 1863 and one letter from August and one letter from September and two from October. So in between, there's weeks and months at a time where I still had no idea.
So even though I felt like I had the whole story, I realized, no, there's still big gaps that I'm going to have to fill. And the other surprise was, just the way the characters of his diary continued and kept growing and unfolding, like his relationship with his captain. The first letter I have from 1863, he's already feuding with Captain Richardson again, which he did all through the first volume. And you have these characters you've written into a novel and you want to see how the relationships unfold. But that was just part of his letters.
It also impressed me that these were the stories he was sending home. They weren't the full story. Because what do you write home to your family? You tell them part of the story, the part you want them to hear; your younger sisters, your mom and dad, friends and family in town. You're not going to send them every detail of your life in the middle of a warzone.
Most of the people in this book are people who are just close to Freeman Colby or people in his regiment, the 39th Massachusetts. But one of the other famous people was President Lincoln. Can you talk about his appearance in this book?
He does make a brief cameo. There's this great story that appears in the 39th Massachusetts Regimental History that actually happened to Private William Sumner of Massachusetts. He's a cousin of Senator Charles Sumner, which most people know as the guy who was caned on the floor of the Senate before the war.
William Sumner was assigned the duty of guarding this newly seeded lawn in front of the White House. And all these generals and admirals would try to cut across this lawn to get to another administrative building. And his job was to say, “Sorry, sorry, you can't cross here. You'll have to go around.” And then here comes the President as Sumner is sitting there. Abraham Lincoln going from one meeting to another. And this soldier, this lowly private, the lowest level in the Army, he has to decide: Do I step in front of the Commander in Chief and tell him to go around the grass? Or do I just salute and he walks where he wants to?
He finally decides, “I'm sorry, Mr. President, you can't walk across this grass.” And Lincoln's taken aback, and I may be mixing up the 39th text account with my own cartoon account, which is slightly different. But Lincoln laughs and says, "Well, since I gave the order to protect this grass, I'm happy to have somebody turn me away from it. Good job, Private." And the officers commend him for it.
I show the officers, watching this happen and being very nervous, like, “Oh my gosh! What is this fellow in our regiment going to do? Will we all get in trouble?” And they're relieved when the president takes it so well. And that's totally Lincoln. He's such a humble man and such a kind man on a personal level.
You've been deep in the weeds in Civil War history for a long time now with these two volumes and now a third in the works. Can you tell us anything that you found surprising about the Civil War? What surprises you, as someone who knows so much about it?
Wow. There's so many things. I try to keep up with the news and what's going on nowadays too, as I'm as I'm working. I feel like I spend half my time in the 1860s and half my time in the 2000s. But I feel like as I'm working on this, it just becomes more and more relevant to what we're dealing with as a country now. So much in the news.
How is it relevant now?
Freeman Colby starts off from Henniker. To put it baldly, he's a white guy from Henniker who has never really considered what that means. I shouldn't speak for him, but I get the sense he hasn't really considered what citizenship is in the United States; what that is to what his racial identity is and his place in society. And he just dives into this. He dives into the army and he finds himself down south and he's suddenly confronted with slavery and what it is as this foundational institution in the American economy. And at first, all through Volume I, he doesn't really know how to deal with that or how to process that. He makes jokes about it. He doesn't describe it very much in his diary. It's not that important to him. In Volume II, he still doesn't really address it in his letters. He will by Volume III and IV, but he still hasn't really addressed it in his letters. But because of those gaps, I could go out and say, "Okay, I'm going to address this. I'm going to show what's out there that he's not mentioning in his letters. Specifically the people who whose stories don't show up in his letters, like the nurses, the volunteers who are helping in the hospitals, and especially the people who are enslaved all around him who are playing such a vital role in the war."
We're always in the mood here at NHPR for a good reading recommendation from you. Send us your suggestion by email. The address is books at NHPR.org. You can also tweet your reading recommendation @NHPRbookshelf.
Listen to our conversation with Marek about Volume I and check out his reading recomendations here.