- Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War by Jonathan W. White
"Nighttime during the Civil War might reasonably be considered the most sleepless period in American history," writes Jonathan W. White(xix). It is the rare moments of sleep during this period, the dreams of the sleepers, and the recording of, sharing of, and musings on those dreams that are the focus of White's new book. Any professional historian or Civil War buff who has perused soldiers' letters from the Civil War has likely come across at least one dream report. Soldiers and civilians frequently recorded, shared, and analyzed their dreams with the folks back home or at the front. White promises readers that investigating the dreams of people who lived through the Civil War "has the potential to teach us a great deal about how Americans experienced the war." Their dreams, he maintains, were raw and unfiltered manifestations of "that generation's deepest longings—its hopes and fears, its desires and struggles, its guilt and shame" (xiii). In Midnight in America, White delivers on his promise; Midnight in America is a unique study of the Civil War era. In it White argues that dream reports "served as a way to connect distant family members, exposing a deep link between the battlefield and the home front." The war had [End Page 344] separated husbands and wives, fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, sometimes for the first time in their lives. Dream reports were shared as a special and "intimate way that families sought to bridge that divide" (xiv). Furthermore, Americans had a fascination with dreams, religion, and spiritualism in the Civil War era and beyond. They reported with enthusiasm on their dreams and took seriously their meanings, messages, and possible omens. White argues that Americans' dreams in this period had the power to motivate, to guide, and to warn dreamers.
Part of Midnight in America's success is its distinctiveness; there is nothing like it currently published. Its uniqueness also made it challenging to review. White's book builds on research on the common soldier, from the work of Bell Irvin Wiley to that of James I. Robertson. It benefits further from the new "dark turn" historiography, heavily relying on works on death by Drew Gilpin Faust, Mark S. Schantz, and Stephen Berry. White also helpfully discusses a handful of studies on the history of dreaming.
Midnight in America is organized into seven thematic chapters, which should be thought of as separate but interrelated essays. These thematic chapters focus on soldiers' dreams, civilians' dreams, African Americans' dreams, dreams of the dying, dreams in popular culture, and Lincoln's dreams of death. There is truly something for everyone here. I found chapter 2, on soldiers' dreams, the most fascinating. More than anything, White argues, soldiers dreamed about home. These dreams, in addition to letters, were a way for soldiers to maintain a link with the home front. Not all home dreams were pleasant, however. Soldiers also had disturbing dreams of marital infidelity. "Young men away from home feared that their wives and sweethearts might lose hope," writes White, "or believe that their lovers had died, and fall into the arms of a sneaking coward at home" (29). White asserts that men used dream reports as a way to situate their fears of abandonment or adultery and broach an obviously difficult and emotional topic with their wives or sweethearts. Soldiers also occasionally confessed to romantic and sexual dreams, what we might call wet dreams. These reports demonstrate that, being far from prudes, Civil War soldiers were sometimes remarkably candid in expressing their sexual desires.
I suspect that many readers will find the last chapter, "Lincoln's Dreams of Death," particularly interesting. Possibly the era's most famous dreamer, Lincoln's closest confidants frequently reported the dreams Lincoln shared. Some of those dreams filtered into popular culture, and indeed the national consciousness. White analyzes perhaps the two most famous of Lincoln's dreams. The first...