Book Review: Eye of the Storm

May 2, 2020 - No Comments

by Jim Barnes

It isn’t exactly news at this point, but just about every event that I know about through June has been cancelled or postponed. Since we have no idea whether we will have much of a reenacting season, or whether we will have one at all, I will try to put in some historically related posts until we do know. Like most people, I am staying home and trying to make good use of my time. Reading material such as the following is part of that process.

 Eye of the Storm

As part of my quarantine routine, I read Eye of the Storm, ( Edited by Charles F. Bryan Jr. and Nelson D. Lankford, The Free Press, New York, 2000) the memoirs of Pvt. Robert Knox Sneden. Sneden was from Nova Scotia, but settled in New York City in 1850 when he was 18 years of age. After he arrived he decided to become an architect and engineer and apparently worked as an apprentice with experienced practitioners of these crafts. He also dabbled in art in his spare time. Not a lot is known about his life in the 1850s, but like many others, he became swept up in the events of 1860-61. When Fort Sumter fell, he decided to help by getting a job as a civilian assistant to the quartermaster for the 40th New York Volunteer Infantry. He served in this capacity until after the first Battle of Manassas whereupon he enlisted in the same regiment as a private soldier.

Sneden worked as a mapmaker on the staff of several generals. Apparently his work was well-received, and he was allowed a great deal of freedom of movement and spared a lot of the routine drill of soldier life because of his position. He spent most of his time around officers and in fact, did the work of a staff officer. Curiously, even though generals Heintzelman. Birney, and French would contend with one another for his services, he was never given a promotion.

Sneden’s mapmaking duties at this point (the Mine Run Campaign) required a fair amount of field work. It was during this period that Sneden was captured by Mosby’s Rangers. The rest of his memoirs detail his travel to Richmond’s Pemberton Prison and later to Andersonville and beyond.

Sneden’s narrative is taken from his own diaries which he kept during the war and managed to hide as a POW. The text is accompanied by numerous well-done drawings illustrating events and places in the memoir. Sneden was not only a talented mapmaker. His artwork is clear and well-done and his writing is exceptionally readable.

His observations about life in the Army of the Potomac, wartime Washington City, and life as a prisoner of war are fascinating. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the Civil War from the perspective of an ordinary soldier.

Jim

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