Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Dreaming of Home in the American Civil War

Guest blog by Wanda Easter Burch

Physically exhausted from walking, fighting, and from four days’ detail digging trenches under an unbearable Petersburg, Virginia, sun and “not a breath of air stirring,” Henry Lea Graves, a private in the Macon Georgia Volunteers, wrote to his aunt on August 7, 1862, that it was “…hot as it ever gets to be in central Ethiopia.”  Paying homage to both the imagination and the night dream, he described a dream in which he saw himself standing, not with spade in hand, but eating from a bowl of peaches in the midst of “homefolk” with his coat off, moving across the piazza, enjoying the cool breeze “that almost always is blowing fresh through there with a basket of peaches at my side and all the homefolk around.[1]
            He told her that he often went into this place in his imagination to pass time swiftly and shared that “soldier mortals” would not survive if they were not “blessed with the gift of imagination and the pictures of hope.” The second “angel of mercy,” he said, was the night dream, which presented him even more vivid pictures of hope than any daydream.           
            The soldiers of both the North and the South in the American Civil War described conflicting emotions of loyalty to their individual causes, but letters describing a dramatic shift in consciousness when the soldier entered the battlefield, and the immense longing for “home” were universal, and the dreams in those letters were described generally as the most “real” dreams ever experienced. These dreams permeated the nineteenth century culture. They were printed as poems, written as songs, painted, scripted in journals and diaries and became the daily “news” in popular newspapers.  They embodied a quality of immediacy and flawlessness of revelation that escalated with the increasing horror of the conditions of the reality of a war that began with hope for a short ending, occasionally seen even as a jolly adventure that would be over before it began, to the waking reality of a lengthy contest of grim terror that brought death, maimed bodies, disease and living conditions that deteriorated as the years wore on. If the soldier or family member could not integrate the dream with the waking reality, the nightmare, called Soldier’s Heart in the Civil War, took on a life of its own, consuming waking reality for those who could not find their way back to a safe and nurturing place.
            Mark Huber, Vietnam combat veteran, wrote that all veterans come home “naked in the dark,” referring to the barren, solitary feelings described by Tolkien’s character in Lord of the Rings who had lost his ability to feel anything. Mark Huber asked questions difficult to answer about those in the Civil War whose lives became a closed book once the war ended and the letters and diaries were packed away, and he couldn’t help but speculate on whether those soldiers in the South who lost their war had feelings close to his own of having lost his war in Vietnam. Did the Confederate soldier whose feelings of a noble cause turned to dust leave him standing alone with nothing left but anger at the human loss “expended in vain” for the wrong cause?[2]
            The simple answer is “yes.” But the dream, then and now, could be the “angel of mercy,” described by Henry of Graves in 1862. Brian Turner, Third Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Mosul, 2004, described that same sense of dream reality as soldiers writing from any war, past, present or future:. “…And finally the dream shifts to where it often goes, a dream I started having when I was in Iraq — I’m back home in the San Joaquin Valley, about 20 miles north of Fresno, out in the country, and I’m sort of a disembodied hovering version of myself, floating over my family’s property where I was raised, drifting in and out of the eucalyptus trees…It’s a dream I like, one that I always want to last longer, drifting between those trees. The clarity of this dream is far beyond most of my dreams, which are often murky, convoluted, fragmented, disjointed.[3]
            Recognizing the power of dreams of home and family and of the gifts of the imagination could still be the missing piece to returning today’s soldier safely home and to offering families healing from the nightmare of war; a place where souls and hearts can mend and find humanity when horror and terror force themselves into the most protected and private places that struggle to keep body and spirit together and whole. Our culture is not so far removed from the Civil War that we cannot reclaim the power of dreaming as a vital part of healing soldiers and families  experiencing home after a physical nightmare.

[1] Dear Mother: Don’t Grieve about me, 176-177. See Graves Family Papers, UNC, Collection Number: 02716; http://www.lib.unc.edu/mss/inv/g/Graves_Family.html
Henry Lea Graves to his aunt, August 7, 1862, St. Petersburg.
“Chiefly letters to and from Henry Lea Graves. Letters from Graves discuss routine military life, maneuvers, camp life, and requests for mail; letters to Graves chiefly discuss life on the home front, family news, illnesses, etc. 1861 letters found Henry in the vicinity of Norfolk, Va.; letters in January-September 1862 found him in Wilmington, N.C., and Petersburg, Va.; October 1862-January 1863 letters found him in Petersburg and Richmond, Va.; and letters, 1864-1865, were received by him at Savannah, Ga., and Charleston and James Island, S.C.
[2] http://backstoryradio.org/civil-war-call-in-show/ Wanda Burch interview; Comment by Mark Huber, Vietnam combat veteran; J. R. R. Tolkien, Book Six, Chapter Three. “Mount Doom,” The Lord of the Rings.
[3] Brian Turner served seven years in the Army, most recently in 2004 as an infantry team leader in Mosul with the Third Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Second Infantry Division. His 2005 book of poems, “Here, Bullet,” challenges others to record and share their dreams, many of those responding by sharing the dreams of home that got them through the most difficult days. A young soldier reported on Turner’s blog dreams of home mixing with scenes in Baghdad but bringing him back home again in the terror of war.

Text adapted from by The Home Voices Speak Louder than the Drums:Dreams and the Imagination in Civil War Letters and Memoirs by Wanda Easter Burch, just published by McFarland.

The letter at the top was sent by Charles [Charlie] Tenney of the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry to Addie Case, dated April 11, 1862.The stationery is an example of a kind that could be purchased at that time, featuring a popular Thomas Campbell poem titled “The Soldier’s Dream.” Campbell was a Scottish poet who died in 1844, but his poem found its way on letter heads and in soldier’s letters on both sides of the conflict. The actual letter is one of hundreds of letters between Charlie and Addie, many of them with dreams. Addie's dreams were extraordinary dreams of presentiment of Charlie’s death, the last one an out-of-body dream experience that crossed at the same period of Charlie’s actual death in a make-shift hospital in a church in Bolivar Heights, a community outside Harper’s Ferry.


Wanda Burch said...

Thank you Robert! This was a project that I fell in love with back in 2007 in a visit to Savannah. I opened a book of Georgia soldiers' letters in a bookstore and turned immediately to the Henry Graves dream report in a letter. I moved through the book and time and again the pages turned to dreams. I realized at that moment that I was looking at an unreported piece of history - the vast preponderance of dreams written in Civil War letters. I stopped looking when I did a dream word search on a site called Documenting the American South. The archived collections of at least 16 universities are represented on that site, which account for only a fragment of the letters written during the Civil War. I searched on Civil War and "dream" and had over 13 million hits. I then pulled up the first 20 pages, which included 10 references each. Of those 10 references, 5 or more were of actual dreams reported in Civil War letters and memoirs. Assuming that percentage was accurate for the collection, there were at least 6 million letters from soldiers and families recording dreams in the American Civil War archived in one internet collection. Imagine the numbers in the history of that war and multiply that by dreams sent home in all wars. We have neglected both the resource and our ability to use those dreams for healing the wounds of war.

Robert Moss said...

Wanda, thank you so much for your very important contribution to our understanding of how important dreaming is in our history, and in healing the wounds of war. Let me invite you to write another guest blog expanding your comment. People who are ignorant about the role of dreaming in history need to know that you discovered that there are 6 million letters recording dreams in the time of the American Civil War in one internet-accessible collection alone, hidden from the history that is taught in schools or published in books - before yours.

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