Civil War Art: Robert Knox Sneden, Artist

Robert Knox Sneden (1832-1918)

In 1994 two gentlemen entered the Virginia Historical Society (now the Virginia Museum of History and Culture) to show Dr. James Kelly a collection that had been held in a bank vault in Connecticut. Kelly was certainly accustomed to people bringing in things for the Museum, but this was something special… there were some 400 images drawn by a Civil War soldier named Robert Knox Sneden. Very excited, Kelly immediately showed the images to Charles Bryan, Jr, the Director of the Society, and they worked to get funds to purchase the images. A few years later learned that Sneden had also written a diary of his experiences in the war, including a stint at Andersonville prison. Sneden’s work was not totally unknown, as some of his images had been published during the 1880’s in Century Magazine’s Battles & Leaders series, but they had languished since then. The Sneden collection, including both Eye of the Storm and Images from the Storm, is a prized possession of the Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond. It contains some 1,000 images, landscapes, and the memoir and contains a major set of first-hand accounts from a soldier in the field.[1]

Not a great deal is known about Sneden outside of the war, but a few facts are clear. He was born in Nova Scotia in 1832. By the 1850’s the family had moved to New York City, where Sneden taught himself architecture and painting. He worked as an apprentice architect and as an engineering surveyor. Early in the Civil War he joined the 40th New York Infantry, where is talents were discovered and he was assigned as a cartographer to the staff of Brig. Gen Samuel Heintzelman and participated in the Peninsula Campaign. Sneden witnessed the siege of Yorktown and was present at Seven Pines (Fair Oaks), Savage’s Station, Glendale, Malvern Hill, and Second Manassas. When Heintzelman was ordered to command the defenses in Washington, Sneden accompanied him. In August of the following year, he was assigned to the staff of Brig. Gen. William Birney.

In 1863, as the Mine Run Campaign began to unfold, Sneden became concerned about the security of his images and diary and mailed them home. It was fortunate that he did, for he was captured on November 27 at Brandy Station by John S. Mosby’s troops and sent to Pemberton prison, a Richmond tobacco warehouse. In February 1864 Sneden was sent south and found himself at Andersonville. However, he was one of the lucky ones and in September was transferred to a Savannah prison facility, and then to a camp in Millen, Georgia, where he was paroled in November. He then worked as a clerk for a Confederate surgeon. Sneden kept diaries and was able to conceal them during his imprisonment. On December 11 he was exchanged and sent home to New York, where he mustered out of service on January 30, 1865.

Sneden’s sketch of his surroundings in Andersonville.

After the war he continued working as an engineer and architect and did some work for William B. Olmstead. He spent a great amount of time writing his memoir based on his diary accounts and turning many of his wartime sketches into watercolor paintings. Sneden scratched out a living and fought for a government pension, receiving only $8 per month based on a disability. Sadly, with so little income, he was forced to enter the Soldiers and Sailors Home in Bath, N.Y., where he died in 1918. Sneden is buried in the National Cemetery in Bath.[2]

Sneden’s paintings are not always historically accurate, and some of his memoirs were drafted from memory, years later. However, they do offer an important first-hand view of the experience of the Civil war and imprisonment. A look at Sneden’s work is highly recommended… his images and accounts are amazing.

Alexandria, Virginia by Robert Knox Sneden


[1] Virginia Museum of History and Culture website:; Charles F. Bryan, Jr., James C. Kelly, and Nelson D. Lankford, Images from the Storm: 300 Civil War images by the Author of Eye of the Storm, New York: the Free Press, 2001. Introduction.

[2]; Bryan, Jr., Kelly and Lankford, Introduction.


2 Responses to Civil War Art: Robert Knox Sneden, Artist

  1. Doug: An excellent post. For anybody interested in the Peninsula Campaign, Sneden’s work is essential, even accounting for his artistic “license”.

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