Freeman Colby: From Primary Sources to Comics

Here’s how I find new Freeman Colby characters & storylines in my many Civil War primary sources:

JUMP TO: the diary | visual reference | supplemental sources | other narrators | other narrators take over! | “A primary source is NOT the full story…” | filling the gaps

Vol. 1: The Diary

Freeman Colby Vol. 1 started out as a (more or less) direct visual interpretation of Colby’s written “diary” (archived @ Henniker Historical Society):

READ MORE: “When the war broke out…” (Freeman Colby Vol. 1) ➤

Adding Visual Reference

Where Colby provides no description of historical sites, I found it useful to refer to historical primary source images:

READ MORE: “Union Volunteer Refreshment Saloon” (Freeman Colby Vol. 1) ➤

Note how those comics panels help us explore the lithograph’s details one at a time, in a deliberate sequence — and as context for Colby’s narrative!

Vol. 2: Supplemental Texts (Memoirs) & Period Graphics

Colby’s “diary” ends abruptly in early 1863, so I had to build Vol. 2 around his 1863 letters. These letters provide only a few details every few months — and even then, they provide only the details Colby saw fit to write down & send home to his family. Thus, I found it necessary to fill gaps in the record with texts & images from other sources.

Below, a passage from the 39th Mass. regimental history illustrates a gap of several months in Colby’s letters:

READ MORE: “The Fallen (June 1863)” (Freeman Colby Vol. 2) ➤

Was Colby actually engaged in carrying the wounded from Chancellorsville? We may never know for sure. But he WAS in Washington at the time, when “large details” from the regiment performed this duty. Even if Colby didn’t personally participate, this task represents a typical experience for someone in his position — So I drew it into the graphic novel to flesh out his narrative.


Bringing in Other Narrators:

To fill these narrative gaps, I find it useful to focus entire sections of the project on the people around Colby, who can provide many details to complement Colby’s details & round out our overall sense of the time period.

Below: Walt Whitman’s pocket notebooks, drawn from Colby’s perspective:

READ MORE: “News from Gettysburg (July 1863)” (Freeman Colby Vol. 2) ➤

… & then those “Other Narrators” Take Over the Story!

As Colby’s world grew deeper & more complicated, I found I really wanted to linger on & follow these additional narrators. This empathic curiosity is a common effect of drawing out somebody else’s story!

Below: While Colby lies sick in hospital, unable to write letters, I find myself drawing from the letters of Nurse Sarah Low. This gives us an entirely different perspective on Union military hospitals & healthcare:

READ MORE: “Sarah Low: Civil War Nurse” (Freeman Colby Vol. 2) ➤

A Primary Source is NOT the Full Story…:

Of course, if we’re really paying attention, we can see that Colby’s letters home don’t tell the full story of his situation:

READ MORE: “Dear Parents” (Freeman Colby Vol. 2) ➤

In the page below, I’m drawing a long march from Colby’s perspective. But notice all the blank space around the characters — That represents details that Colby did NOT include in his letter home. Those could be details of setting, actions, or even other characters. What (or who) is in those blank spaces — those “gaps” — in Colby’s narrative?:

READ MORE: “Let Him March” (Freeman Colby Vol. 2) ➤

Filling the Gaps with More Source Texts:

To get a better sense of the historical reality, I’ve learned to mix in additional sources, with different perspectives on topics Colby doesn’t even mention.

For example, George Stevens’ contemporary account mentions the large numbers of refugees from slavery in this area at the time:

READ MORE: “Refugees” (Freeman Colby Vol. 2) ➤

With that detail, we can seek out & include more diverse voices in our artwork — Turning Colby’s original narrative into more of a conversation between primary sources:

READ MORE: “Fannie Dawson” (Freeman Colby Vol. 2) ➤

These additional voices help us enrich Colby’s original storyline & explore the perspectives of several other eyewitnesses to history!

Published by Marek

Cartoonist, musician, teacher.

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