Eye of the Storm: A Civil War Odyssey, by Robert Sneden, The Free Press, New York, 2000, $37.50.
In 1994, the Virginia Historical Society announced the purchase of four scrapbook albums of Civil War watercolors by Union soldier and cartographer Robert Knox Sneden. The albums, which contained nearly 500 detailed watercolor maps and drawings, proved to be an extraordinary record of the Civil War landscape of Virginia and an unblinking look at prison life in the Deep South. Prior to their discovery, Sneden’s work was known only from a group of engravings based on his sketches that appeared as illustrations in Century Magazine’s “Battles and Leaders,” a group of serialized columns on the Civil War that were eventually published in hard-bound form.
Intrigued by the compilation, the society launched a search for background on the collection. That led to one of the art-ist’s descendants and the society’s subsequent acquisition of a five-volume memoir containing more drawings and Sneden’s wartime recollections. Robert Sneden’s memoir and artwork has now been published as Eye of the Storm: A Civil War Odyssey (The Free Press, New York, 2000, $37.50), a striking volume lavishly illustrated with 83 color reproductions of his maps and sketches. A thoroughly researched introduction and informative background notes by editors Charles F. Bryan and Nelson D. Lankford support Sneden’s original text.
The soldier’s four illustrated notebooks and the memoir of his Civil War activities, the basis for Eye of the Storm, were compiled after the conflict from his wartime diary and sketchbooks. Sneden’s watercolors, rendered with a draftsman’s eye for detail, may provide the only surviving visual sources for many areas of the war-ravaged countryside of central Virginia and the Virginia Peninsula. Sneden’s artwork does not romanticize the battlefield. In fact his paintings reveal the stark wartime realities of mud, destruction and violence. The text, Sneden’s memoir written in diary form, provides a vivid personal recollection of his experiences in the Army of the Potomac from the late fall of 1861 to his capture and imprisonment in the Confederacy’s infamous Andersonville prison in 1864. Throughout Eye of the Storm, Sneden manages to recount his military experiences with a perceptive detachment that gives his narrative a feeling of authenticity, unlike some overblown memoirs rife with hyperbole. Unfortunately, a portion of the memoir, a two-month period covering part of May and June 1862, is missing.
The author of Eye of the Storm was born in Nova Scotia in 1832 and immigrated to New York City with his parents sometime around 1850. Sneden perfected his artistic skills as an architect and engineer in civilian life. In 1861 he received an appointment as assistant quartermaster in the 40th New York Volunteers–dubbed the Mozart Regiment for its origins in the Mozart Hall faction of the Democratic Party. When the 40th left for Virginia, Sneden remained in New York for some months to settle accounts. He joined the regiment, then in its camp outside Washington, D.C., after the First Battle of Bull Run, enlisting as a private in Company E.
In September 1861 he resumed staff duties as an assistant commissary and was soon recommended to Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick as a cartographer. By the time the 40th reported to the Virginia Peninsula to take part in Maj. Gen. George McClellan’s advance on Richmond, Sneden had been assigned to full-time duties as a cartographer attached to the staff of Maj. Gen. Samuel P. Heintzelman’s III Corps. Sneden’s assignments often took him close to the front. The collection of detailed sketches, maps and diary entries that cover the Peninsula campaign and the Federal disaster at Second Manassas form nearly half of Sneden’s material collected in Eye of the Storm.
Between September 1862 and October 1863, Private Sneden remained with Heintzelman’s headquarters in the defenses of Washington and enjoyed the comfortable life of garrison duty. In October 1863, after a considerable number of requests, Maj. Gen. David Birney, commander of a division in the III Corps, finally succeeded in gaining Sneden’s services as a cartographer, only to lose him to the III Corps’ new commander, Maj. Gen. William French. In November, shortly before the Mine Run campaign, a lightning behind-the-lines raid by Lt. Col. John S. Mosby’s Partisan Rangers on Brandy Station resulted in the capture of Sneden and a group of headquarters clerks.
The second half of Eye of the Storm consists of Sneden’s intimate account of his captivity and imprisonment in Richmond and ultimately at Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Ga. On March 1, 1864, Sneden described his Andersonville surroundings: “The camp was not laid out in any order or shape, everyone had built his tent or shanty where he thought would be a good place….Huts and shelters had been built by those who got there first of pine boughs, sticks, and mud taken from the swamp…. Old tattered overcoats and ragged dirty blankets were propped up on three sticks with just room enough to crawl under while some had dug holes in the ground three or four feet deep and made a slanting roof over them of poles and pine top boughs. The whole camp looked like a collection of pig pens.”
By November 1864, driven by hunger and the need to survive, Sneden gave his parole and was assigned as clerk to Confederate surgeon Isaiah H. White. As a mem-ber of White’s “staff” he traveled to Camp Lawton, a prison at Millen, Ga. Late winter found Sneden, still adding to his sketchbook, on the move from Savannah to Florence, S.C., and then on to Charleston. Throughout his wanderings he maintained his diary, recording the final days of the Confederacy before being exchanged in early December. After his release from Confederate captivity Sneden was discharged from the service in January 1865. His health broken, he returned to civilian life and, without great success, resumed his career as an architectural draftsman. In 1905 he sought entry into the Soldier’s Home in Bath, N.Y., and he died there in 1918 at the age of 86.
Robert Sneden’s beautiful memoir, Eye of the Storm, is valuable to any student of Civil War soldier life. His draftsmanlike watercolors provide a view of the battlegrounds of Virginia and the misery of Confederate prison life uncluttered by the Victorian conventions of heroic battle painting that all too often cloud the artistic record of the Civil War. Of his artwork, Sneden’s illustrations of the war in Virginia are the most interesting, but it is his recollections of Andersonville and captivity in the South that provide the most compelling reading. Although the reader may come away from Eye of the Storm wishing for the inclusion of more of Sneden’s illustrations, his reminiscences will be a welcome addition to any Civil War library.