Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2017 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Dr. Jonathan White, Associate Professor of American Studies and the Senior Fellow at the Center for American Studies at Christopher Newport University. His research interests focus on the U.S. Constitution, the American Civil War, and treason in American history. He has authored, co-authored, and co-edited numerous books and articles for both scholarly journals and popular magazines. His most recent works include Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln (LSU Press, 2014, winner of the 2015 Abraham Lincoln Book Prize, and finalist for both the 2014 Jefferson Davis Prize and the 2015 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize); “Our Little Monitor”: The Greatest Invention of the Civil War (co-authored with Anna Gibson Holloway, forthcoming, 2017); and Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep and Dreams during the Civil War (forthcoming, 2017). He is currently at work on a new book project entitled Abraham Lincoln and the Slave Trade.
CWI: What did dreams mean to Civil War-era Americans? What did their dreams reveal about their experiences during the war?
WHITE: Many Americans who lived through the Civil War were captivated by their dream lives. They recorded them in letters and diaries. Some even recalled them years later in memoirs and regimental histories. They wrote them down, I think, because they recognized that their dreams revealed something about who they were and how they experienced this tumultuous period. Some believed that their dreams were signs from God. For that reason they could find comfort in them–even when they were dreams that portended death or other harm.
CWI: How did dreams either help or haunt Americans during the Civil War? How did dreaming change, or remain the same, in the immediate wake of the war?
WHITE: Soldiers in both armies found comfort in their dreams. We tend to assume that most soldiers suffered from traumatizing nightmares during the war. To be sure, many had such dreams–and they wrote plenty about them. But most soldiers’ dreams appear to have been pleasant. They became an escape from the harsh realities of soldier-life, and a respite from heavy marching and fighting. One of the most interesting things I found is that in the immediate wake of the war some soldiers found comfort in their dreams of war—reliving moments they had experienced on the battlefield—not in fearful ways, but with a sense of longing to return to their comrades.
CWI: What are some of the major similarities or differences between Union and Confederate “dreamers” and the ways in which dreams were interpreted or viewed in the North and the South?
WHITE: Northern and Southern soldiers tended to have similar dreams. Most often they dreamt of home, of loved ones, and of things that were familiar to them (like food). These dreams helped encourage them during periods of long separation. In a very real way, soldiers’ dreams of home were like visitations with loved ones, reminding men of what and who they were fighting for.
Northern and Southern women, by contrast, had very different types of dreams. Of course, wives in both sections had terrible nightmares of their husbands being killed in battle. But Northern and Southern women’s dreams were different in one fundamental way. Southern civilians often dreamt of Yankee invasions, while Northern women often dreamt themselves going to battle. Both could be terrifying in their own way, but each reflected the different experiences of civilians in the different sections.