Primary Sources of Freeman Colby Vol. 3

The Freeman Colby Series draws directly from the accounts of people who took part in historic events! Below are a few of the many primary sources at the heart of VOL. 3. ~ Marek

Letters of Freeman Eri Colby (1864)

Transcripts archived @ the Henniker Historical Society

Colby’s wartime letters form the narrative backbone for this whole book series. Sent to his family in Henniker, NH, these letters tell about his hospital experiences in Winter 1864, including how he gets involved in teaching classes for freedmen, & eventually finds his way back to service at the front in Virginia. Colby’s Spring 1864 letters provide hurried outlines of survival during some of the bloodiest months of combat in American history.

VOL. 3 features 5 letters written by Colby:

  1. 2 Feb 1864 / Carver Hospital, DC / “A more earnest set of scholars never got together for the same purpose.”
  2. 1 April 1864 / Carver Hospital, DC / “War news I know nothing about.”
  3. 19 April 1864 / Carver Hospital, DC / “I was ordered before the board yesterday for examination…”
  4. 28 April 1864 / Soldiers Rest Alexandria, Va. / “I start in 20 minutes for the front.”
  5. 14 May 1864 / Spottsylvania Court House, Va. / “Fought during the day & held our position through the night.”

HISTORICAL NOTE: Colby’s hasty letters contain large gaps & omissions of crucial information. To fill out these gaps, I have carefully added in details from many other period sources (see below). This means taking some liberties with certain historical facts — for example, sometimes I might gently combine settings or characters, or let one account blur into another. My goal is to craft a single narrative representing collective common experiences, featuring a finite cast of characters, & depicting a wider selection of voices from the era.
// (For specific examples, see “Freeman Colby: From Primary Sources to Comics.”) //

Letters of Nurse Sarah Low (1864)

HISTORICAL NOTE: Colby is a patient @ Carver Hospital & Nurse Low works at Armory Square Hospital; However, for narrative clarity I have drawn them together in the same hospital.

We first met young volunteer nurse Sarah Low in Freeman Colby Vol. 2. The NH Historical Society has preserved many of her wartime letters & ephemera; I’ve greatly enjoyed the chance to explore & transcribe these original documents in my research.

While Colby’s still recovering in 1864, Nurse Low gives us a rich sense of life in & around the DC hospitals. Her letters recount several unique historic scenes, including:

Miss Anna Dickinson becomes the first woman to make a political address before congress

Dancing the night away (or not) with officers at the front

Visiting the new Freedmen’s Villages & schools around DC

Soldiers telling their stories…

Tea-time in a military hospital

An emergency tracheotomy!

… & much more.

The 39th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers (Roe, 1914)

This official regimental history features hundreds of pages of stories collected by a committee of veterans. Roe narrates their stories with the hindsight of 50 years, but he also quotes directly from primary sources including diaries, journals, reunion presentations, and other written accounts, all verified & approved by the participants.

Start reading @ 1 Jan. 1864 >>

Letters of Harriet Jacobs (1864)

Before the Civil War, Harriet Jacobs wrote “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl…” as an account of her enslavement at the South & daring escape to the North. During the war, Jacobs organized schools for refugees from slavery at some of the very sites Low (& maybe even Colby) are known to have visited.

SAMPLE PAGES: Jacobs on the the Freedmen’s Village @ Alexandria >> / On the children >> / Starting a free school >>

HISTORICAL NOTE: Sarah Low writes about Freedmen’s villages & camps as a Northern visitor & volunteer; Harriet Jacobs writes powerfully as a member of the Freedmen community, & her letters provide frank views on the many strengths & challenges faced… ~ M

BELOW: Harriet Jacobs, daughter Louisa, & some of their students @ Alexandria Free School (1864).

The Civil War letters of Wilbur Fisk

Like Colby, Fisk was a rural New England schoolteacher who volunteered in a local regiment — the 2nd Vermont, in Fisk’s case.  Throughout the war, he wrote eloquent & extensive reports to the Green Mountain Freeman, sharing valuable ground-level details & reflections on the evolving conflict.  I use Fisk’s letters in several places to fill in gaps in the accounts of Colby & Bacon.  The letters are collected by Emil & Rosenblatt in Hard Marching Every Day (University Press of Kansas).

I used selections from Fisk to flesh out Jonas Bacon’s experiences in Vol. 2; over the course of Vol. 3 I show Fisk speaking & experiencing parts of his own story.

HISTORICAL NOTE: Fisk was in an entirely different (but nearby) Union regiment; However, he provides a voice & experiences that I suspect Colby & Co. would’ve encountered in their own Massachusetts regiment. Crucially, he does not shy away from depicting the less heroic moments of the war — For example, I’ve used his account of a retreat to explore what many soldiers like Colby may have been reluctant to include in their letters home. ~ M

Hardtack and Coffee (Billings, 1887)

This postwar book provides an invaluable source of information and memories by a veteran campaigner; I find whenever I have a question about depicting some aspect of camp life, Billings often has an entire chapter about it — Or at the very least, he shares several details that entirely change how I draw the scene!

HARPER’S WEEKLY Vol. 8 (1864)

Week-by-week accounts in words & pictures from all fronts of the war, plus news from around the world! In Harper’s we can actually read along in the media coverage of many historic Vol. 3 scenes:

[1864 Article text digitized @: >>]

SPECIAL FEATURE: Thomas Nast: “The Press on the Field” (Harper’s Weekly / 30 April 1864)

Civil War Sketch Book: Drawings from the Battlefront (Katz & Virga)

This beautiful collection reprints many sketches & prints from each year of the war. The 1864 section provides important details & perspectives not included in primary source texts of the time!

Alfred Waud: Drawings

As a special artist for Harper’s Weekly, Alfred Waud seems to have closely followed Colby’s tracks through the thickest fighting of May, 1864. I’ve used many of his battlefields sketches (& the resulting prints) to get a sense of what happened, where, & how.

The Civil War and American Art (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

…examines how America’s artists represented the impact of the Civil War and its aftermath. 

I’ve returned to this collection again & again for context & analysis of Civil War paintings & other images — especially (for Vol. 3) the wartime career of Winslow Homer.

Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War (Noah Andre Trudeau)

Trudeau provides many accounts & field reports of USCT units in action in May 1864. Colby’s letters give small hints at how the war is changing; These gripping primary sources drive the point home.

In the VOL. 3 EPILOGUE, I piece together notes & reports & speeches from multiple scenes involving USCT to envision what the first meeting between black Union troops & confederate cavalry may have been like.

The Civil War Told by Those Who Lived It (Library of America)

Reflecting the unprecedented, widespread literacy of nineteenth century Americans, an astonishing number of writers—white and black, male and female, soldiers and politicians, public intellectuals and private citizens—left vivid first-hand accounts of the Civil War…

In researching events from 1864, I’ve benefited immensely from the accounts collected in Vol. 4 (“The Final Year”).

More sources & notes to be posted…

This work is PATRON-POWERED!

Published by Marek

Cartoonist, musician, teacher.

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