Sneden, Robert Knox 1832-1918
SNEDEN, Robert Knox 1832-1918
Born 1832, in Nova Scotia, Canada; died 1918, in Bath, NY. Education: Self-taught in architecture, engineering, and illustrating.
(And illustrator) Images from the Storm: 300 Civil War Images by the Author of Eye of the Storm, edited by Charles F. Bryan, Jr., James C. Kelly, and Nelson D. Lankford, Free Press (New York, NY), 2001.
The author's illustrations have appeared in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper in the nineteenth century; contributor to F. W. Beers' Atlas of New York and Vicinity, and a revised two-volume atlas originally published by I. B. Culver and Co. in 1866.
Robert Knox Sneden was a Civil War soldier known for his mapmaking skills and the detailed memoirs he composed after the war. His famous sketches and watercolors depict Civil War scenes never shown in photographs.
Sneden was born in Nova Scotia, Canada, to descendents of British loyalists. His family left the colonies after the Revolutionary War. At the age of eighteen, Sneden made his home in New York City, where he worked as an architect and engineer. When the Civil War began with the attack on Fort Sumter in 1861, twenty-nine-year-old Sneden enlisted in the Fortieth New York Volunteer Infantry.
Because Sneden was a skilled architect, he was assigned the duties of mapmaker and cartographer while serving in the war. He created many sketches and took shorthand notes in order to capture details of the war. He hid his work inside of a copy of the New Testament and in his shoes and clothing to keep this information out of enemy hands. He was reassigned to defense headquarters in Washington, D.C. under General John Sedgewick in 1862.
Sneden was captured by Confederate troops under Colonel John Singleton "Grey Ghost" Mosby on November 26, 1863, in the Mine Run campaign. He and other detainees were transported to Crew and Pemberton Prison in Richmond, Virginia. The prison was a former tobacco warehouse used to detain Union prisoners. Here he continued to take notes, which described some of the horrors of the Confederate prison and the inhumane treatment of the northern prisoners. He remained in various southern prisons, including the infamous Confederate prison in Andersonville, Georgia, until December 1864, when he was returned to the North through a North/South prisoner exchange.
After the war, Sneden returned to architectural and surveying work to earn a small amount of money while writing his memoirs. Sneden worked to improve his wartime sketches, inking them and turning them into detailed watercolors. He also rewrote his notes in the form of a diary. He worked the rest of his life to prepare this material for publication.
In 1914, Sneden retired to the Soldier's and Sailor's Home in Bath, New York, where he died in September of 1918. At the time of his death, he had only published a few sketches, one of them anonymously—although there was some debate as to whether this sketch was actually Sneden's work. The remainder of his writings and sketches came to light in 1994 when they were discovered in a bank vault in Connecticut. These originals have since been kept at the Virginia Historical Society with the rest of the Sneden collection. After extensive editing by Charles F. Bryan, Jr., and Nelson B. Lankford of the Historical Society, Sneden's work was published by Free Press in 2000 under the title Eye of the Storm: A Civil War Odyssey.
Eye of the Storm: A Civil War Odyssey has received much attention since its publication. The book contains five thousand pages of watercolors, maps, and descriptive narratives depicting events from the war. "The narrative depicts the life of the common soldier and is perhaps one of the most complete descriptions of the Civil War battlefield experiences (the Army of the Potomac) and prison life (Andersonville) ever written," commented Charles C. Hay, III, in a Library Journal review. "Readers will enjoy seeing carefully selected examples of Sneden's primitive yet powerfully evocative art. Skillfully edited, Eye of the Storm may one day be considered a classic," remarked Hay.
In a review of Eye of the Storm, Journal of Southern History critic James A. Ramage noted that "mistakes of chronology mentioned by the editors raise the question of reliability—not of the annotations in this book, but of Sneden's memory—and one must keep in mind that this is a memoir written after the war and not a diary. The draft of Sneden's memoir on which this book is based is repetitive and has unusual abbreviations and other eccentricities, but the editors performed exemplary work in deleting, revising, and preparing the text for smooth reading.… This exciting book is one of the most colorful, revealing, and valuable Civil War memoirs in print." Civil War historian Gary W. Gallagher told U.S. News & World Report that the work "is nearly unique in that it gives us so much illustrative material.… A number of sites he painted were painted by no one else, and we have no photographs of them."
Free Press published a second book of Sneden's work in 2001, Images from the Storm: 300 Civil War Images by the Author of Eye of the Storm, edited by Charles F. Bryan, Jr., James C. Kelly, and Nelson D. Lankford. The second publication contains three hundred additional illustrations with excerpts from Sneden's memoirs, as well as editorial notes. In a Booklist review, Gilbert Taylor summed up the complete work: "There is nothing else comparable in the genre of soldier-drawn Civil War art … the vividness of his scenes is undeniable, unmatched, and, in certain instances, unrecorded by any other extant document." Because this complete work is so unique, collectors have found it to be a very valuable addition to American history and Civil War collections.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Heritage, October, 2001, "Editors' Bookshelf: New on the Civil War," p. 24.
Booklist, August, 2001, Gilbert Taylor, review of Eye of the Storm: A Civil War Odyssey, p. 2107; August 2001, Gilbert Taylor, review of Images from the Storm: 300 Civil War Images by the Author of Eye of the Storm, p. 2082; January 1, 2002, review of Images from the Storm, p. 760.
Civil War Times, Robert Knox Sneden, "Pen and Sword at Savage's Station," p. 42.
Forbes, October 2, 2000, Susan Adams, "War Story," p. 212.
Journal of Military History, Richard M. McMurry, review of Images from the Storm, pp. 564-565.
Journal of Southern History, May, 2002, James A. Ramage, review of Eye of the Storm: A Civil War Odyssey, pp. 463-464.
Library Journal, July, 2000, Charles C. Hay, III, review of Eye of the Storm, p. 116; October 15, 2001, Joseph Hewgley, review of Images from the Storm, p. 94.
Magazine Antiques, December, 2000, Alfred Mayor, "A Civil War Memoir," p. 828.
Mercator's World, January-February, 2003, Mel Mandell, "The Mapmaker Who Swallowed His Maps (Union Soldier Robert Knox Sneden)," pp. 42-45.
New York Times, Doreen Carvajal, "Yankee Diary Finds Glory in Dixie: Through Serendipity and Detective Work, Virginia Historians Put Together an Illustrated Civil War Memoir," p. E1.
Publishers Weekly, September 4, 2000, review of Eye of the Storm, p. 96.
School Library Journal, February, 2002, Dori DeSpain, review of Images from the Storm, p. 157.
Sewanee Review, Fall, 2002, Clay Lewis, "Witness in Exile," pp. 692-705.
U. S. News & World Report, November 27, 2000, Andrew Curry, "A Yankee Doodle's Diary," p.70.
Washington Post, December 20, 2000, Ken Ringle, "A Brush With History: Robert Sneden's Civil War Memoir Was as Unknown as Its Author. But Now It's a Different Story," p. C1.*