“The Civil War was a uniquely visual and literary war,” keynote speaker, Dr. Charles F. Bryan, explained Wednesday night at the Bradley T. Arms Detachment 1256 in Shadwell. The program, “Civil War Artist, Diarist, and Prisoner of War,” was sponsored by the Marine Corps League and featured the collection of Robert Knox Sneden, a Union soldier who produced nearly 1,000 watercolors and five volumes of diary entries during and after the war.
Bryan, President Emeritus of the Virginia Historical Society, spoke to a small but interested crowd, expounding on the life and work of the most prolific Civil War artist ever. Although the presentation, aided by PowerPoint images, was a fluid explanation of the man and the history surrounding him, there was little analysis of the artwork and the themes, both artistic and personal, running through the work.
An engineer from New York, Sneden helped map areas of Virginia and the old South that had never been drawn or configured before. In his spare time, he sketched battle scenes and landscapes, cities, like Charleston and Atlanta, and the army forts and stations he occupied. He also recorded everything that passed his eye or entered his weary mind, especially the details of daily soldier life, his prison sentences, and his observations of the brutal reality playing out around him.
“He seemed to be trying to put together a comprehensive history of the war,” Bryan said. Sneden returned to New York and continued to record his experiences after the war, contributing more than 30 images to the series “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.” Struggling to keep a steady job and failing to get his diary published, Sneden retreated into alcohol and died in a soldier’s home in 1918.
The sketches (which were later turned into watercolors) are rudimentary and general depictions that display more of an architect’s sense of functionality than an artist’s sense of skill. His landscapes are full of rough lines mapping out space, as if surveying the scene, rather than capturing it and imprinting it with meaning. Yet it’s the overview of “View of Culpeper Court House,” with the lightly shaded horizon and primitively rendered buildings, that makes his work effective. His writing is cleanly descriptive, using words to sketch, and omnisciently observant or “clinical and unemotional,” as Bryan put it. His sober, unsentimental perspective lets us into a simultaneously personal and objectively historical landscape.
The collection, discovered in 1994 in a Connecticut bank vault, was brought to the attention of the Virginia Historical Society by an art dealer named Robert Hicklin. The breadth and the detail of the maps and watercolors was so unique that the VHS, headed by Dr. Bryan at the time, decided to buy them. The only problem was finding the money for a vast collection of Civil War art that was originally offered at $250,000.
The VHS bought 400 watercolors and maps for $100,000 in cash with the help of Floyd Gottwald, a generous and inspired patron. As it happened, Gottwald recognized his ancestral home in a painting of Leesburg, Virginia. The connection spurred Gottwald to insist that the VHS find out more about the man and his work.
Bryan’s search brought him to Snedens Landing, a hamlet in the lower Hudson Valley, 20 miles north of New York City. The initial inquiry came up empty, but he was referred to a great great-nephew of Sneden’s and learned that, stored somewhat haphazardly, were 500 more watercolors and a 5,000 page diary.
In 2000, Eye of the Storm: A Civil War Odyssey was published and edited by Bryan and Dr. Nelson D. Lankford. The illustrated memoir chronicles Sneden’s harrowing journey through specific campaigns, such as the Seven Days Battles and the second battle of Bull Run, as well as his time in Andersonville prison. A companion of mostly illustrations, Images from the Storm, was published a year later.
Sneden’s watercolors and writings can be accessed mainly through the books, but information about the collection is available on the Virginia Historical Society’s website (www.vahistorical.org), where exhibition schedules are listed.
Sneden’s work is also included in VHS’s exhibition “The Story of Virginia, An American Experience,” a wide ranging history of Virginia through its art.
No matter how you access Sneden’s work or feel about its value, experiencing one man’s complete perspective is as unique and important as the war he recorded. Thankfully, in an age where history is constantly turning to dust, organizations like the Virginia Historical Society and the Marine Corps League continue to preserve evidence of the Civil War’s personal toll and the artistic benefits we have reaped from the destruction. ~Justin Goldberg