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How a Union captive's art is helping historians and archaeologists


New Yorker Robert Knox Sneden (1832–1918) used his skills as a mapmaker and landscape painter to record his experiences as a Union POW in the Confederate South. (Courtesy Virginia Historical Society)

Captured in northern Virginia by Confederate forces in November 1863, Union mapmaker Robert Knox Sneden of the Army of the Potomac spent the rest of the war in a series of POW camps, including Camp Lawton in Georgia. During his captivity he made sketches and took notes in his Bible, eventually producing the largest collection of Civil War art by any soldier who participated in the conflict. A remarkable map and watercolors by Sneden have now helped guide the work of Georgia Southern University archaeologists who located Camp Lawton last year.


Sneden created several water colors of Camp Lawton, including this painting, which depicts the camp in the upper right, opposite Confederate earthworks. (Courtesy Virginia Historical Society)


This painting shows the prisoner's living quarters, including Sneden's own shanty in the center. The brick ovens at the camp were intended to give the prisoners a chance to pool their rations and prepare meals together, but distrust among the interred soldiers was so high that they kept rations to themselves and used the ovens primarily as shelters. (Courtesy Virginia Historical Society)

Sneden's watercolors came to light only recently. The artist's great nephew had used Sneden's scrapbooks, filled with vivid paintings of Civil War scenes, to repay bad debts in the early twentieth century. They were stored in a Connecticut bank vault for decades until 1994, when the current owner, a descendant of a friend of the great nephew, approached the Virginia Historical Society, which purchased the works. "But we didn't know anything about Sneden," says Nelson Lankford, the society's vice president. "There was no memoir or diary."

After contacting a military curator at West Point, Lankford and his colleagues learned that a small town on the Hudson River was once known as Sneden's Landing. A volunteer in her 90s at the local historical society remembered the Snedens, and was able to bring Lankford into contact with the descendant who had inherited the portion of Sneden's Civil War work that stayed in the family. "One of the first things he said to us was, 'you know about the memoirs don't you?'" says Lankford. "It turned out he had the memoir and other watercolors in mini storage in Arizona."

The society purchased the second collection, which together with the work from the Connecticut bank vault make up one of the most significant collections of Civil War art in the country. "During the Peninsula campaign of 1862, Sneden made a series of watercolors of buildings and landscapes that were destroyed by the war," says Lankford. "Those are our only records for many of these places." Outdoor photography in the south was not very developed then and most Confederate army photographers took studio images, so Sneden's landscapes and depictions of buildings in the Confederacy are particularly important.

The series of Sneden's images of Camp Lawton came in especially handy for Kevin Chapman, an archaeology graduate student at Georgia Southern University. "The only maps we had of the Camp Lawton area dated to 1920," says Chapman. "And they are railroad maps that just show the railroads and the land usage. So we really relied on Sneden's images." When he was held at Camp Lawton Sneden was allowed outside the prison on parole to help the camp doctor write prescriptions in Latin. "He had a real chance to survey the area and make notes for maps," says Chapman. "I was amazed by what he got right. For instance, we thought we knew things that were glaringly wrong on his map, like a stream that is on left of the map. Today there is no stream there, and I thought he just made up. But I got to talking to an old farmer who told me there had been a stream there that's been dried up for 60 years."

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Sneden created this map of Camp Lawton based on information he gathered while working outside the camp for the prison doctor. (Courtesy Virginia Historical Society) Limited excavations at Camp Lawton by archaeologists from Georgia Southern University revealed a surprisingly large amount of artifacts considering the site was only occupied for six weeks. (Courtesy Georgia Southern University)

Chapman's team is currently using the Sneden map and watercolors to pinpoint the footprint of the camp's stockade. "But that's just stage one of what we estimate will be a decades-long project," says Chapman. Sneden also made detailed depictions of Confederate earthworks, support structures, the camp hospital, and an encampment outside the stockade. Excavations at these sites in the future will be guided in part by Sneden's works.

The Virginia Historical Society is currently digitizing all of Sneden's watercolors in preparation for an exhibit commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. More than a thousand of his paintings will be available for researchers online. "That will magnify his contribution," says Lankford. "I anticipate the ease of access to these pages will only make this collection more important to scholars of the period."

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Artifacts from Camp Lawton included (clockwise, from left): a fork that may have come from mess kits provided by the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a forerunner of the Red Cross; a Union eagle button with an 'I' standing for infantry; a small star worn by paroled POWs, possibly similar to one Sneden might have worn; a tourniquet buckle that would have been used to keep a bandage tight. (Courtesy Georgia Southern University)

Eric A. Powell is deputy editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.