Virginia Historical Society

Richmond, VA



Eye of The Storm: The Civil War Drawings of Robert Knox Sneden


One of the greatest Civil War collections ever discovered begins its national tour November 1, 2000, at the New-York Historical Society in New York City. The traveling exhibition, "Eye of The Storm: The Civil War Drawings of Robert Knox Sneden," organized by the Virginia Historical Society of Richmond, Virginia, is based on the illustrated 5,000-page Civil War memoir of Private Sneden. Nearly 100 detailed watercolors, maps, and drawings depicting Sneden's experience as a soldier in the Army of the Potomac, a Union map-maker, and prisoner of war in some of the worst Confederate prisons-including Andersonville will be on display through December 31, 2000. After closing in New York, the exhibit will travel to the Atlanta History Center in Atlanta, where it will be displayed from January 23 through March 20, 2001. The exhibit will be at the Chicago Historical Society May 30 through September 30, 2001, then at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, October 24, 2001, through January 24, 2002. (left: Andersonville Prison, Showing Sneden's Shanty, 1864)

The exhibition opening coincides with the release of an edited version of Sneden's diaries, Eye of the Storm: A Civil War Odyssey, which is edited by Dr. Charles F. Bryan, Jr., director of the Virginia Historical Society, and Dr. Nelson D. Lankford, assistant director for publications and education at the Virginia Historical Society. The book is published by The Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster.

Robert Knox Sneden's artwork, the largest collection of Civil War soldier art ever produced, presents an intimate account of the Civil War in emotionally evocative detail. His work captures the brutality of the war and the horrors of imprisonment. Revealed is the portrait of a man so obsessed by his war experience that he devoted the rest of his life to documenting it. "This newly discovered Civil War collection is unrivaled in every respect, " remarks Bryan. "Never before have we been invited into the heart and soul of such an important historical event as Sneden does through his personal memoir." (left: Miller's House near Brandy Station, Virginia, site of Sneden's capture in 1863)


About Robert Knox Sneden

Robert Knox Sneden (1832-1918) enlisted in the Army of the Potomac in 1861 and was recruited as a map-maker. In the dark of the night in 1863, with the cold barrel of a Confederate pistol at his temple, Sneden was captured by men under the command of the celebrated John Singleton Mosby, "The Gray Ghost." Pistol-whipped and wounded, Sneden was led to prison in Richmond, Virginia. Held in some of the worst and most infamous Confederate prisons of the war, including Andersonville, Sneden continued to document his experience. He hid his dramatic pencil sketches in his shoes or sewed them in his coat so that they would not be stolen by prison guards. His depictions of captivity are disturbing and uncomfortably detailed, showing scenes of starvation, fear, and loss of hope.

Sneden returned to Brooklyn in 1864 only to find that he had been declared missing or dead. Permanently disabled by his 13 months in prison, he used his time to turn his pencil sketches into watercolors. Although Sneden drew many of his drawings while he was at the battle, numerous drawings were done after the war was over.


Discovering the Collection

One afternoon in the fall of 1994, art dealer Robert M. Hicklin, Jr., and a client, came to the Virginia Historical Society with something to show James C. Kelly, assistant director for museums. Dr. Kelly escorted the men to the Paul Mellon Rare Book Room where they chatted for a few minutes. Then the visitors opened a suitcase and it took little time for Kelly to realize the contents were extraordinary. He excused himself and went across the hall to bring in the Historical Society's Director, Dr. Charles F. Bryan, Jr. He watched as one of the men began turning the leaves of the albums. He was stunned to see page after page of detailed watercolor sketches and intricate, hand-drawn maps. In all, the four albums contained a remarkable collection of more than 400 images, most of which portrayed Civil War battles and Confederate prison camps. Thanks to the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Floyd D. Gottwald, Jr., of Richmond, the Sneden images were purchased and are now one of the premier treasures in the Historical Society's collections.

Kelly began searching for information about Sneden. He discovered that a few of the watercolors had been engraved for the monumental series, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, published by the Century Company in the 1880s. Sneden had contributed three dozen images to the series, then he and his collection dropped from sight. The Virginia Historical Society thought it had found the missing Sneden collection. The real surprise came three years later, when Kelly's research led him to a Sneden descendant who owned another collection consisting of the 5,000 page diary/memoir and approximately 500 additional watercolors and maps. A second gift from Mr. and Mrs. Gottwald allowed the Historical Society to acquire this collection as well. A rotation of images from the Sneden collection is in the Historical Society's long-term exhibition "The Story of Virginia, an American Experience."

Read more about the Virginia Historical Society in Resource Library Magazine

rev. 11/20/10

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For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/6/11

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