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What’s So Great About Sneden? Part II

09/01/2010

What is so remarkable about Robert Knox Sneden is that he was just as good a writer as he was an artist. Sneden the draftsman was accustomed to observing everything around him. He could remember what he saw, and into the long entries of his memoirs, he could fit that detail. His wonderfully descriptive writing style is straightforward and easy to read. It is detached, for the most part not overly biased against “the rebels.” Sneden’s narrative, at its best, takes us into the thick of battle, just as the watercolor drawings do. In 1862, when Robert E. Lee repulsed the thrust of George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign that threatened Richmond, Sneden witnessed the retreat. He recorded the panic and terror in passages that read like a novel or a Hollywood script. (One wonders why Hollywood has not yet taken up this script.) Here’s an excerpt:

Sneden Diary, Vol. 3, page 45

Virginia Historical Society (Call no: Mss5:7 Sn237:1, Vol. 3, p. 45)

All through the woods I met lines of wounded men hobbling towards Savage’s [Station] by the railroad track. Many had been so badly wounded that they sat on the ground to die, but few ambulances were to be seen. And they were all full of dying and desperately wounded men. Thin streams of blood ran out of the sides and bottoms of these vehicles, while the drivers were lashing the horses, and going over stumps in a reckless manner, jolting the remaining life out of the occupants. No signs of the enemy were to be seen in the woods on the opposite side of the Chickahominy [River], but their camp fires during the night denoted a very large force.

The passage goes on for ten pages. “The heat was intolerable.” Soon, the Confederate force “came on in beautiful order of battle, with piercing yells and confidence.” “5,000 muskets fired at them.” “To [this] the enemy replied by double the number, when all in front was hid in smoke.” The battle lasted for hours. Do yourself a favor and read Sneden’s entire account.

In the other parts of his odyssey, Sneden takes us along with him to northern Virginia, and then to prison camps in Richmond and in the deep South, eventually to Andersonville and other sites in Georgia. By then, as readers, we have become good friends who would follow him anywhere. And we believe him.

When you look at the artists who depicted episodes of the Civil War, Robert Knox Sneden has to rank as one of the best. When you read his diaries, you don’t easily put them down. Nobody else covered the Civil War so effectively as both an artist and a writer! The images complement the writings, and vice-versa. Sneden’s in a class by himself. That’s why he’s great.

The Sneden watercolors will appear in a video production that will be presented in An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia.

Do you now think Sneden was great? Either way, you will want to come see the video in the Civil War show.

William M. S. Rasmussen is Lead Curator and Lora M. Robins Curator at the Virginia Historical Society.

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