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Event Preview: Civil War coverage

'Eye of the Storm' follows the adventures of a Yankee private who seemed to be everywhere

Friday, April 04, 2003

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

With a pencil in one hand and a sketchbook in the other, Robert Knox Sneden witnessed and recorded most major events of the Civil War in the East.

Pvt. Robert Knox Sneden chronicled the Civil War in 1,000 watercolors, maps, and drawings. The painting above is of "The Shebang," quarters for the U.S. Sanitary Commissioner at Brandy Station, Virginia, Nov. 1863. This agency cared for the health needs of Union soldiers.

Exhibit Preview
A rose and a sword from Gettysburg

'Eye Of The Storm'

WHERE: Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, Strip.

WHEN: Through Sept. 30. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

DETAILS: There will be a symposium on the Civil War from 9 a.m. to noon and 2 to 8:30 p.m. Saturday with curator Nick Ciotola and others. (412-231-1747 for registration). There will also be an extensive lecture series, a Civil War Toy Soldiers workshop on April 26, a Civil War Festival on June 8, and more. Go to www.pghhistory.org or call 412-454-6000.

ADMISSION: $6; $3 kids 6-18; $4.50 seniors and students.

Gifted with an unwavering eye for detail, the Union private watched Gen. George B. McClellan choke during a campaign to seize the Confederate capital of Richmond, saw a man's head blown off during the second Battle of Bull Run, was captured by Confederate raider John Singleton Mosby and nearly starved in Andersonville prison.

"This man is everywhere that's important, except Gettysburg. He was the Forrest Gump of the Civil War," said James C. Kelly, director of museums at the Virginia Historical Society, comparing Sneden to a movie character played by Tom Hanks. Sneden managed to cover all that ground while carrying a traveling artist's kit, prismatic compass and a powerful, $8 spy glass.

Sneden, who stood 5 feet 6 inches tall, eluded death on six battlefields. He devoted most of his 86 years to turning his later war sketches into watercolors and recopying his diary, which was part memoir. He died in 1918. For more than 80 years, four of his scrapbooks sat in a Connecticut bank vault while his diary wound up in an Arizona storage locker.

With a lot of luck and some serendipity, the words and pictures were reunited when a benefactor helped the Virginia Historical Society buy the watercolors in 1993 from a dealer and acquire the diary four years later from a Sneden descendant.

In 2000, Sneden's art and vivid prose were published in a book titled "Eye of the Storm."

"It is the largest body of Civil War art by any single soldier or sailor who served in the conflict," Kelly said.

"Eye of the Storm," an exhibit featuring 100 of Sneden's watercolors, opens today at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center in the Strip District.

A self-portrait of Pvt. Robert Knox Sneden.

The watercolors, about 3 inches by 3 inches in size, are like postcards and provide intimate windows on the conflict.

Research shows that about two-thirds of the watercolors were done while Sneden witnessed events, Kelly said. "He was present at the scenes he was depicting. The others are not. He does have watercolors from Gettysburg and we know he was not physically there," Kelly said.

"The discovery of these 1,000 watercolors is the first fresh source of imagery of the Civil War since 1973 when the Century Collection was acquired by American Heritage," Kelly said. "In the diary, he talks about executing the watercolors and a narrative of the circumstances in which they were made. To have this wonderful text and these wonderful pictures and to have them relate to each other is remarkable."

"He was like this human camera," said Nelson D. Lankford, director of publications and scholarship at the Virginia Historical Society.

After the war, when Sneden began painting and copying his diary, "He wasn't just recalling from memory. He had a huge amount of material at hand. The pre-capture part, I believe, he copied word for word from his diary, with occasional editorial insertions," Lankford said, adding that the story of Sneden's capture and imprisonment was expanded later.

Sneden's training in drafting, engineering and architecture became his passport to comfortable quarters, the newest military intelligence, chances to socialize with high-ranking officers and a front-row seat in the thunderous theater of battle.

After an officer noticed Sneden sketching, the private found himself employed as a mapmaker in 1862 for Gen. Samuel Heintzelman, commander of the III Corps. Maps were in great demand because Union leaders were unfamiliar with Southern terrain.

"The general of course, out in the field, would have the best house for headquarters as well as better food," Lankford said.

Sneden, "wasn't an officer so he had few responsibilities. He had to draw the maps he was assigned to do. It was the perfect job, until he got captured," said Lankford, who edited "Eye of the Storm" with Charles F. Bryan Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Virginia Historical Society.

Sneden whiled away the summer of 1863 in Washington, D.C., where he saw baseball games and attended plays at Ford's Theatre while Heintzelman oversaw defenses in the Union capital.

Sneden grew restless but before he returned to the battlefield in the fall of that year, he shipped his watercolors and diaries home to New York.

"If he hadn't sent it home just before he went back out in the field, it probably all would have been lost," Lankford said.

Initially, Sneden made maps for Maj. Gen. David Birney but was soon transferred to Maj. Gen. William H. French III.

In November 1863, while sleeping with a skeleton force of Union soldiers at a farmhouse in Brandy Station, Va., Sneden awakened when a Confederate pressed a pistol's muzzle to his head and ordered him to be quiet.

During an interrogation by the raider Mosby, Sneden denied knowing the location and number of Union cavalry officers.

Sneden led a starkly different life in Pemberton Prison and later in Andersonville, which was in Georgia.

"Once he's captured, he does not have the luxury of watercolors and sketch book and living with the general," Lankford said.

In Andersonville, "All he had was scraps of paper and pencils. He got a copy of a New Testament and made notes in the margins in shorthand, using it as a diary. He somehow got a notebook, erased the existing writing and used that," Lankford said.

During his 13-month stay at Andersonville, Sneden made pencil sketches, which he hid by sewing them into his clothes. When he was released as part of a prisoner exchange in December 1864, Sneden also stowed drawings in his boots and hat.

"He comes out of prison in late 1864 with all these scraps that, in volume, are not nearly as much as what he generated before he was captured," Lankford said.

Like many inmates in Andersonville, Sneden looked down upon "galvanized Yankees," the men who worked for the Confederate prison administration and promised not to run away in exchange for better food.

"They were looked down on by other prisoners as having sold out to the Confederacy," Lankford said.

In September 1864, Sneden left Andersonville for a prison camp in Savannah, Ga., where he kept records for Isaiah White, a Confederate surgeon, and promised not to run away. Sneden's decision to become a galvanized Yankee, Lankford believes, was the bargain he struck to survive.

"He lives in a hut outside the prison stockade. He does not justify it. He's not a very introspective or reflective person," Lankford said.

Sneden was mustered out of the U.S. Army in January 1865 and returned home to New York, where his family had given him up for dead. The architect William B. Olmstead employed Sneden.

"[Sneden] was a curmudgeonly old guy and a failure as an architect. If he'd been a successful architect, he wouldn't have had time to write this 5,000-page diary and paint all these watercolors. He never married. He just seems to be a social misfit," Lankford said.

The war dominated Sneden's thoughts. He often clipped newspaper obituaries of Confederate soldiers, including Maj. John Gee, a commandant at a prison in Salisbury, N.C., who let prisoners starve so they were too weak to escape.

On his way to Andersonville, Sneden stayed in the Salisbury prison, which had a mortality rate that exceeded the one at Andersonville.

Gee died in a Florida hotel fire. In the margin of the obit, Sneden wrote, "He burned to a crisp."

"That's what Andersonville did to him," Lankford said. "He didn't forget and he didn't forgive."

Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

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