Charles E. Snyder was born in Constableville, Lewis County, New York, on January 10, 1836, the son of farmer John Snyder and his wife, Eleanor Roberts. Snyder taught district school between 1852 and 1857 and entered the University of Albany in 1858, graduating in 1859. He then returned to study law, receiving his L.L.B. degree in 1862. On August 13, 1862, he was mustered into the 50th New York Infantry, which was converted to the 50th Regiment, New York Engineers on October 22, 1862. Snyder entered the military as a private, and received promotions to corporal (March 16, 1864), sergeant (October 1, 1864), and first lieutenant (February 28, 1865). His regiment was involved in numerous engagements in Virginia from 1862 until April 1865, including Fredericksburg and the Appomattox Campaign. He was mustered out with his company at Fort Berry, Virginia, on June 13, 1865. In 1866, he married teacher Hannah Wright, with whom he had corresponded throughout the war. They had two daughters and two sons. Over the course of his career, Snyder served as the principal of several schools in Newburgh, New York, and as vice president of the New York State Teachers' Association.