1863: “The Last Day Of The Eventful Year”

December 31, 1863

This is the last day of the eventful year and a general despondency prevails among us. Many are talking of the good old times we used to have at home about this time, or in camp. Story telling among us occupies the dark lonely hours from 6 to 10 p.m. A sickening feeling comes over us as we realizes that we are prisoners with no immediate prospects of being released by exchange….

The Rebel guard say that the “Yankees are dying right smart now at the hospitals.” We learned that they were buried in trenches out back of Libby Hill, which is next to Church Hill, east of us. So we die like dogs, and are buried like dogs! The Rebels furnished us with 300 sheets of coarse paper and brown paper envelopes so that we could write home today. We are limited to twenty words, envelopes to be left unsealed so that Turner may read them first before posting. We advise those to whom we write to enclose a 10 cent silver piece by return mail if they answer our letters or they would not be received over the Rebel lines. Pieces of lead pencil were furnished us also to write with. Very few of us wrote at all. Many had forgotten the addresses. Others would not let their friends or relations know how they were suffering. Nothing could be sent us by our friends, for the Rebels would appropriate the things to their own use. And, knowing that Turner would inspect and read every letter, many would not give him the grim satisfaction of doing so. Walsh, Halley, Rhineheart, and myself wrote home. We just said that we were captured by Mosby 27th November last at headquarters General French at Brandy Station, and that we were all well and in good heart looking for an early exchange….

Private Robert Knox Sneden, journal entry for December 31, 1863

John Mosby

Captured By Mosby

1863 had been a particularly good for Confederate Major John Mosby. Early in the year, he had got permission to create an independent group of partisans which was allowed to operate separate from the other cavalry commands in Virginia. Company A, 43rd Virginia Cavalry had its share of secretive and successful missions; they captured Union generals, regularly raided supply lines, and caused a lot of trouble for the Yankees.

Private Robert Knox Sneden was one of the unfortunates Yankees captured by Mosby during a raid on General French’s headquarters. A thirty-one year old Canadian who had moved to New York City a decade before the Civil War, Sneden had worked as an architect and then joined the 40th New York Infantry. During the war, he moved around, serving as a cartographer or working in logistics for several Union generals. Sneden had been assigned to William H. French’s staff during the Mine Run Campaign and on November 27th got captured when the Confederate partisans arrived.

Robert Knox Sneden

In Prison

Sneden spent his first months of captivity in Richmond, lodged in a tobacco warehouse turned prison that stood beside the infamous Libby Prison. His guards’ comments about dying Yankees would have been especially troublesome since he was fighting typhoid fever. In February 1864, Sneden would be moved south to a new prison camp called Andersonville. Ten months later, he would be exchanged.

One of the remarkable things about Sneden was his determination to create a record of his experiences. While some soldiers wrote detailed accounts (primary sources), Snowden went a step farther. He created illustrations. He sketched battles, camps, and prisons – and later – after the war, he turned the sketches into watercolor images. His journal and illustrations survived and are preserved and published, giving researchers a glimpse into scenes of historic importance through a soldier’s eyes. Even in Richmond’s prison and Andersonville, he created sketches and adding to the knowledge and memory of those places.

Virginia Historical Society and Library of Congress have preserved Sneden’s illustrations and the collection has been called “the largest collection of Civil War soldier art ever produced.” If you want to see the sketches, his maps are available here and some of the sketches here.

Historical Musings

For the Union soldiers in Confederate prisons, New Year’s Eve was not a joyous time. Still, they spent some time talking over the past year – something many of us will do at some point today. That part of the account really stood out to me because it’s a reminder that no matter where we are, no matter how rough or amazing the year may have been, it’s important to review the happenings and be thankful for the good times.

We weren’t captured by John Mosby and we aren’t sitting in a Richmond prison. But we have freedoms because those soldiers did. Maybe this primary source will add some perspective and new things to consider as we look back on our own experiences in 2018…just as the soldiers remembered 1863.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

1863: “We Are Still Tunneling Away”

Double post Monday! This is the second and final post for today…

[Spelling is original]

In Camp, Siege of Vicksburg, June 9, 1863

Dear wife,

We are still tunneling away at the rebel works around the city and in the same position as we were when I last wrote to you, with a fair prospect of remaining so for several days to come, but we will go into the city of Vicksburgh after awhile, that is shure, for we can live outside of their works longer than they can inside of them, that is certain, for we can get everything we want, and they can get nothing atall. We hear all kinds of rumors of how they are suffering fro want of water and provision, but we can’t tell which tale is the true one, and so we let them pass for what they will fitch. Continue reading

1863: “I Wish I Was Home…”

[spelling is original]

Fort Ripley, Mariland 

April 18, 1863

Dear Mother

I received your letter to night and was glad to hear from you and to hear that you are all well. I am tuff and harty as a buck. I have not hearn from the boys for a long time. I wrote to them some time ago but have not got one yet, but I am looking for one every night. I wish that the boyes was here with me for we are in a better place than they are. Continue reading

1861: “Behaved As Well As If On The Parade Ground”

Gazette665 Blog Series 1861: In Their WordsOctober 22, 1861

…Our company made the last charge. The general was killed, shot by 5 balls; nobody knew who was the senior in command & Col. Lee ordered a retreat. But we were determined to have one more shot. So Frank ordered a charge & we rushed along, followed by all our men without an exception, & by Lieut. Hallowell with 20 men, making about 60 in all. So we charged across the field about half way, when we saw the enemy in full sight. They had just come out of the wood & had halted at our advance. There they were in their dirty gray clothes, their banner waving, cavalry on the flank. For a moment there was a pause. And then, simultaneously, we fired & there came a murderous discharge from the full rebel force. Of course we retreated, but not a man went  faster than a walk. Continue reading

Union Blue, Stars, & Home

The Civil War was over after the surrender at Appomattox Court House. (Well, almost – there were still a few Southern armies which had to surrender, but that was only a matter of time.) The Army of Northern Virginia had laid down their weapons.

What happens next?

Today, I’m going to take a semi-fictionalized viewpoint and tell some history from the perspective of a Union soldier on the evening of April 13, 1865 (thus placing it before Lincoln’s assassination). I think this will be more interesting to you, dear readers, than lists of facts and “random” information. Keep in mind that the following information is based on real historical facts, but does not contain actual written quotes by a Union soldier.

Looking Back

It’s over. After four years of fighting, our nation is one country again. It’s a time of triumph, and while there are some events which I shall proudly tell my children, there are many others I wish I’d never seen or done. War has changed me. It’s changed our nation. Can we move on and start again? I believe so.

I swat at a pesky mosquito – that’s one thing I won’t miss: Virginia weather, mud, and bugs! And while I’m listing on those topics – I shan’t miss the army food either. I’ll gladly trade tasteless hardtack, salt pork, and a million pounds of army beans for my dear wife’s cooking and her delicious apple pies. (I did learn to make decent coffee…)

But the memories of hundreds of miles, campaigns, battles, and skirmishes fill my mind tonight. I’m one of the lucky ones, I guess. How many men and boys from my small home town won’t be coming home? Their places around the fire are empty, and we who have survived sit a little closer, trying to fill the vacant spaces. We don’t say anything, all lost in our thoughts.

Union Soldier burial crew at Antietam, 1862We’d enlisted…how long ago was it? Months, years, or another lifetime? When the war started it was only supposed to last three months. How wrong we all were! But we enlisted and came – thousands and thousands of men from all stations, classes, and stages of life. Something bigger than ourselves brought us here. For the younger men, it might’ve been a love of adventure or running from home. For others committed to a cause of liberty, a chance to strike a blow at slavery. Still others came for the money. Others, speaking with foreign accents, wanted a chance to prove they were worthy citizens. But most, myself included, came because we believed America should be one nation and we wanted to defend that idea for future generations.

And so we fought. We bled. We died. For what we believed was right. And the graves stretched for endless miles behind us. We were soldiers in Union blue.


The cannons are silhouetted on the low ridge. They’re silent now. It’s over.

Union army camp [public domain]That glorious fact is still not fully real in my mind. Won’t we be force marching again tomorrow? Won’t we be fighting another battle, watching our comrades tumble to the ground, crying out in agony? Won’t we be burying the dead and writing those letters home?

No. It’s over.

The stars shine brightly, as if all of heaven is illuminated and celebrating peace. Stars – you beacons of hope, shining through the darkness nights above cold battlefields, above lonely tenting grounds, above the homesick soldier. Stars – now seeming to dance in the sky. It’s over and you seem to know. The battlefields will become hallowed grounds, the tents will disappear, the soldier goes home.

It’s over. The stars now point the way home.

Looking Forward

Rumor has it that there will be a grand review of the Union army, then we’ll all be mustered out and head for home. I’ll trade this blue wool uniform for civilian clothes again and return to my pre-war job – providing for my family in a peaceful setting.

Home and family – ah, blessed words. Never take for granted the place and those you love most. They were always there, waiting for your return.

I wonder what will happen next. I mean –  I know what I will do – go home and hold my family close. But what will the country do? Will we welcome back the Southern states like long-lost family? Or will we send them to the woodshed for punishment like rebellious, bratty children? Which would be most effective? As a father, I think now it is the time to welcome them back. They’ve been punished enough. But will the politicians, the leaders see that? And what about these freedmen? How will they fit into our society? How will we welcome them?

So many questions. That is the future: unknown.

Soldiers_in_campBut one thing I know – I cannot speak for the commanders or the politicians – but I can speak for myself and my comrades here. We are men in blue. We dared to fight to defend our country. We are stronger. We will be better citizens.

The stars in the sky have witnessed it all. Now, they are our witnesses as we see the future dawning. We are going home. It’s over.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What other thoughts and conflicts would a Union soldier have felt at this time? Share your opinions or historical resources.