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These are some reviews from a recent issue of The Civil War News:
Eye of the Storm: A Civil War Odyssey.
Written and illustrated by Private Robert Knox Sneden.
Edited by Charles F. Bryan, Jr., and Nelson D. Lankford. Illustrated, 317 pp., 2000. The Free Press, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020, $37.50 plus shipping.
Did this guy miss anything? Thatís what I found myself asking as I read the recently discovered journal written by Union soldier Robert K. Sneden of the 40th New York Volunteers. I was amazed at how much of the war he had witnessed. Although he was only a lowly private working as a mapmaker in the Army of the Potomac, he seems to have gotten around quite a bit and met ó or at least observed ó almost every important personality of the era.
He participated in the Peninsula Campaign in 1862 and witnessed a string of battles including Williamsburg, the Seven Days, Savage Station, Malvern Hill and Second Bull Run. He saw Lincoln and he rubbed elbows with Irwin McDowell, Fitz-John Porter, Daniel E. Sickles, Joseph Hooker, George A. Custer, Winfield. S. Hancock, George G. Meade and George McClellan.
While on a mapmaking trip to Brandy Station, Virginia, on Nov. 27, 1863, Sneden was captured by no less a ce-lebrity than Confederate guerrilla John S. Mosby. (When Mosby talks sharply to him during an interrogation, Sneden makes an insulting reply and is pistol-whipped by one of the Rebels. He carries the resulting scar over his eye as a life-long badge of honor.)
Sneden bounces from one Confederate prison to another until late February 1864, when he ends up at the notori-ous Andersonville Prison in Georgia. Among the assorted characters he runs into there is an oddball named Boston Corbitt, who later became the reputed killer of John Wilkes Booth.
Snedenís detailed journal includes a bonus. Being a draftsman, he made numerous watercolors of the places he vis-ited and the battles he witnessed. The editors have wisely chosen to publish this book on glossy paper and to include a selection of dozens of Snedenís paintings. When Sneden describes how some of the Rebel guards at Castle Thunder prison in Richmond stood on the balconies above the main door, you can flip the page and look at his picture and see the precise detail he is describing.
This book has a lot going for it. There is fresh interesting insight into the day-to-day life of the common soldier, lots of historical personalities, a panorama of scenery, massive battles, and the gut-wrenching horror of prison camp. Itís no wonder that the editors decided to give this book the subtitle, "A Civil War Odyssey." Like a Homeric myth, this book has epic scope.
Weaknesses? There are a few. One is a question about the accuracy of certain details. Sneden wrote this journal from contemporary notes long after the war. The notes themselves have been lost. Sneden occasionally supplemented his own accounts with material borrowed from other post-war published memoirs. The editors point out these in-stances whenever they can. This question of accuracy, however, detracts from the storyís impact.
The other shortcoming is that Sneden fails to tell us very much about himself. His skills are those of a map-maker: someone who can objectively observe and record precisely what he sees externally. The reader finds himself wanting to know more about what the observer feels about his observations. What we learn about Sneden we have to infer obliquely, by reading between the lines.
All considered, this is an important new contribution to Civil War literature. If someone were to walk into a li-brary 100 years from now and ask for a recommendation concerning a book that gives a flavor of what it was like to be a soldier in the Union army, I can imagine the librarian asking, "Have you read Eye of the Storm?"
Walt Albro is a magazine edi-tor and freelance writer. His popular history articles have ap-peared in many publica-tions including Maryland and Maryland Historical Magazine.
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