I am in the middle of a retail store that is similar to a Christmas Tree Shop or Walmart, but this one has a nautical theme. While shopping with my mother I see her take something, put it in her purse, and start for the automatic sliding doors at the entrance. Like a good store patron, I naturally try to prevent my mother from shoplifting. I call out to her, “Mom!” She doesn’t turn around. “MOM!” All of the other moms in the store stare at me except for my own. “APRIL!” I yell so loud that I wake myself up to find my whole family stirring awake in our hotel room in Hershey, Pennsylvania and my half-asleep mother, April, voicing her unhappy opinion.
Now, before I go on, I must make clear that my mother is not a shoplifter. So, why in the world would I have a dream like this? Why do we, as humans, dream at all? The popular answer among scientists is that they don’t know. So how can something for which we have no explanation impact us individually and culturally so much? All throughout human history, dreams have left people both baffled and with answers. Albert Einstein discovered the principle of relativity, Paul McCartney composed the song “Yesterday,” and Abraham Lincoln might have predicted his own assassination according to Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln’s friend and bodyguard, all while dreaming.
Though dreams are very personal and reflect our innermost desires, anxieties, and feelings about our surroundings, they are also universal and connect us to one another as one of our many human experiences. Soldiers in the American Civil War, North and South, had surprisingly similar dreams, in which the most common theme was “home” according to Johnathan W. White. Dreams were often an escape from the chaos and hardships of war. Reunions with family members and sweethearts, visiting familiar places, and home-cooked meals would warm the bodies and souls of many, but then morning would bring disappointment. James A. Burnett from Company H in the 26th Regiment of Missouri Volunteers wrote to his wife, Rebecca Jane:
While I was sick I thout of you and home never then evr befour I wold dream that I was at home with you ever time I fell a Sleep I wold think that you was nursing me but when I wold wake up I wold find my self very mutch disapointed I nevr knew what home was tell now.
Soldiers’ dreams would also play out their worst fears, whether it was abandonment by their significant other for another man, like in the case of Captain Thomas Jefferson Hyatt of the 126th Ohio Infantry: “I dreamed you had abandoned me and had or was about to form an alliance with Lt. Watson of this Regt.,” he wrote his wife. In the dream, she eventually regretted her decision and decided Captain Hyatt “was a little better” than Lt. Watson. When he awoke and realized it was a dream, he “was very glad of it.”
One man from a Georgia regiment missed his sweetheart so much that he dreamed he was hugging her and woke up hugging his tentmates instead. However, not all soldiers dreamt of just a single sweetheart. One Confederate officer, as White depicts in his article for the Civil War Times, dreamt of multiple women on various nights. One night, there was Miss Sallie, another night there was Miss Kate, and a few days later, Miss Frances.
Stress and anxiety from combat would seep into the men’s slumber as well. Many would replay battles in their heads and feel the weight of guilt on their shoulders even in their dreams. They would often wonder why they survived when so many had not. Others would dream of other violent situations that might have reflected their violent surroundings. William Henry of the 8th New York Calvary wrote to his parents from his camp that was outside Alexandria, Virginia in June 1865. He had a “very bad dream about [Father] the other night,” in which his father and Uncle Anson were hitting each other with clubs. His father ended up killing his uncle before Henry could reach the two men and intervene. Perhaps young Henry’s subconscious was playing out the war in a context he could personally understand: a fight between brothers. Other soldiers would have such vivid dreams that they would end up calling out in their sleep (I can personally relate to this). White reports in his article that one man in the 8th Vermont called out in his sleep, “The rebels are coming!” The camp went into a frenzy, and the regiment formed only to wait for Confederates that weren’t coming.
However, the soldiers that probably had the most vivid dreams were hungry soldiers. “We are now fighting hard for our grub, since we have nothing left but flour,” Osborn H. Oldroyd of the 20th Ohio Infantry committed to his diary on the road to Vicksburg in May 1863. “Too many Slapjacks cause a soldier to dream of a feast at home.” A Wisconsin soldier noted in White’s article had a dream that “there was a million angels in rebel uniforms poaching eggs for me.”
There is a lot to relate to when reading about soldiers’ dreams in their personal letters and diaries. It really humanizes the men that we think of as dogs of war. We barbarize them when we only see them as arrows and blocks on a battlefield map, but through their dreams, we enter into their deepest emotions. Though we will never experience what they went through in the 1860s, we can connect to them on a personally raw level.
Annual Report of the Adjutant-General of the State of New York: Registers of the Eighth New York Calvary. New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center: NYS Division of Military and Naval Affairs. Accessed January 30, 2016.
Burnett, James A. Letter, January 25th, 1863. Civil War Voices, Soldier Studies. Accessed January 30, 2016.
Burnett, James A. Letters. State Historical Society of Missouri. Accessed January 30, 2016.
Henry, William. Letter, June 1st, 1865. Civil War Voices, Soldier Studies. Accessed January 30, 2016.
Kracke, Waud H. “Cultural Aspects of Dreaming.” Accessed January 30, 2016.
Oldroyd, Osborn H. Diary entry, May 17th, 1863. Civil War Voices, Soldier Studies. Accessed January 30, 2016.
White, Jonathan W. “The Dreams of War.” New York Times. Last modified October 31, 2013. Accessed January 30, 2016.
White, Jonathan W. “In Their Heads.” Civil War Times. December 2015.