By JONATHAN W. WHITE
The Civil War placed new and unique strains on Americans, and their dreams reflected those hardships. Sometimes the war intruded on people’s slumber, vividly bringing to life the horrors of the conflict; for others, nighttime was an escape from the hard realities of life and death in wartime. When Americans recorded their dreams in their diaries, letters and memoirs, they sought to make sense of the changing world around them, and to cope with the confusion, despair, and loneliness of life amid the turmoil of a gigantic civil war.
The most common theme in both Northern and Southern soldiers’ dreams was “home.” A New York soldier wrote to his wife: “Last night I dreamed of being at home as I often do and sweet were the kisses what I took all around.” A 36-year-old Virginia soldier likewise told his 16-year-old sweetheart, “I dream about you som times three or four nights in succesion[.] I dream som mighty good dreams about you.”
But dreams of home could lead to disappointment after sunrise. “I dreamed of huging and kissing you all night last night,” wrote one Indiana soldier to his wife. “Oh, how happy I was but how bad I did feel this morning.” Similarly, Lt. Richard Goldwaite of the 99th New York Infantry told his wife that he dreamed “you came here to see me and we were a going to have a good time in my tent when night came,” but “when I woke up in the morning and did not find you, I was mad enough to go over to Baltimore and get drunk.”
Soldiers’ dreams of home often revealed their fears of spousal infidelity. Capt. Thomas Jefferson Hyatt of the 126th Ohio Volunteers had several “very queer” dreams one night. In the first, he dreamed that his marriage “had run out and we were about arranging another term.” In the second, he dreamed that his wife “had abandoned me and … was about to form an alliance with Lt. Watson of this Regt.” At first Hyatt was content with this new arrangement, “as I supposed I was free to go where I chose.” But soon he “began to feel very badly, and could not think of the separation.” When he awoke, he was relieved to find it had all been a dream.
These kinds of dreams were ubiquitous. A Minnesota infantryman, Duren F. Kelley, dreamed that he saw his wife on a street in Minnesota but that she “seemed to take no notice of me and kept right on.” Such dreams almost drove a Wisconsin soldier to suicide — in his dreams. After dreaming that his wife left him for a neighbor, Miles Butterfield dreamed that he went to the train tracks to “put an end to my Miserable life by lying down on the track and letting the cars run over me, for now I had nothing to live for as you and the Baby was gone.” He then told his wife that she needed to write to him more often.
Wives also dreamed of infidelity. An Irish woman named Betty Murphy dreamed that her husband, a Union soldier named Timothy Murphy, left her and married “a nigger winch.” In response, he playfully chided her, “i amnot as yet i dunt now howe soon i may get one the[y] are [as] plnty [as] cattle around.” He then assured her, “give my love to the children and a bushil of kisses to each one and 2 bushil for your self.”
Dreams of the girls back home were common in the Union and Confederate armies. One Virginia officer dreamed of “having a nice time” with a Miss Sallie. Two nights later he dreamed of a Miss Kate. Four days later, he dreamed that he was about to “pop the question” to a Miss Frances. Meanwhile, the Union general Godfrey Weitzel told his future wife of a dream: “You and I sneaked away from the rest of the folks and went upstairs to that little front room in your house and we had such a pleasant time. But alas! It was only a dream.”
Even a few wet dreams survive in the historical record. A Pennsylvania chaplain noted a peculiar reason that two men in the regiment claimed for a discharge: “Both of them have been married for some years; and yet such are the pernicious effects of the early indulgences, that now they frequently have nocturnal emissions, foul dreams, etc. — besides rheumatism and general debility — such as renders them unfit for service.”
Nightmares of battle could be as jarring as dreams of home were pleasant. An Alabama soldier wrote that his dreams of battle “frighten me more than ever the fight did when I was wide awake,” while a Massachusetts infantryman lamented that “the minute I get into a doze I hear the whistling of the shells and the shouts and groans” of the wounded. “It is horrible.”
Dreams of battle could also be revealed as a soldier talked in his sleep. One Union soldier overheard his tent mate “evidently chasing a rebel in his dream,” while another slumbering soldier shouted, “By detail, load; two, three, four! Sponge; two, three, four! Ram two, three! Ready, fire!” Soldiers languishing in prisoner-of-war camps frequently dreamed of sumptuous meals, giant lice and prisoner exchanges.
The war could quite literally intervene in dreams as well. While sleeping through a cannonade, one New Hampshire volunteer dreamed that he was watching “a Fourth of July Celebration at home.” Weather could have similar effects. “We had a tremendous Thunder shower last night,” wrote one Massachusetts soldier, Charles Harvey Brewster. “I lay dreaming and I thought it was cannon. I thought we were marching towards it, and could see the smoke and I wondered why the balls did not come, finally I woke up and there came a clap precisely like the firing of cannon, and I expected to hear the long roll, but when I heard the rain pattering on the tent I concluded that it was all right.”
The changing nature of the war also affected some Confederates’ dreams, even when they could not fully recognize how. On Jan. 14, 1863 — just two weeks after Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation — an Arkansas soldier wrote to his mother of a strange dream he’d had: “I dreamed last night of being at Aunt Polly’s, at a big dinner. I thought things didnt go on right; I thought I had to eat by the side of a negro and he had a plate to eat on, and I had none.” One would think that the meaning of such a dream would have been obvious to this soldier (his other letters attest to his political awareness, and he frequently mentioned Lincoln), but he wrote, “If you can interpret that dream you may do it for I cant.” Still, he felt confident that he had nothing to fear. “I dont think it will ever come to pass; I know it will never be that way at aunt Polly’s house. I think a heap of aunt Polly and I know if the feds do whip us, she will not allow the negroes to eat at her table with white folks.”
As with these soldiers, the war often caused restless nights for civilians, and war dreams could torment people for days. Elizabeth Blair Lee dreamed that the Confederates captured one of the federal forts outside of Washington in September 1861. She dreamed herself onto Pennsylvania Avenue “in a scene of great anguish and trouble.” “I tell you this,” she wrote her husband, “to let you see how these terrible times haunt me.”
In their sleep, Confederate civilians often dreamed themselves to faraway, peaceful places. A woman who had moved to Arkansas dreamed herself back to Minnesota in 1863, where her family was “pursuing their peaceful everyday duties just as calmly” and where the “pasture reaches to the Pacific Ocean.” A Louisiana girl, meanwhile, dreamed herself into wonderful conversations with Charlotte Brontë, William Shakespeare and the Apostle Paul. “Dreams! who would give up the blessing?” she confided in her diary in the middle of the war. “I would not care to sleep, if I could not dream.”
Jonathan W. White is an assistant professor of American studies at Christopher Newport University. He is the author of “Abraham Lincoln and Treason in the Civil War: The Trials of John Merryman” and the forthcoming “Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln.” He is also writing a book called “Midnight in America: A History of Sleep and Dreams during the Civil War.”