Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War

Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War

Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War

Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War

Synopsis

The Civil War brought many forms of upheaval to America, not only in waking hours but also in the dark of night. Sleeplessness plagued the Union and Confederate armies, and dreams of war glided through the minds of Americans in both the North and South. Sometimes their nightly visions brought the horrors of the conflict vividly to life. But for others, nighttime was an escape from the hard realities of life and death in wartime. In this innovative new study, Jonathan W. White explores what dreams meant to Civil War-era Americans and what their dreams reveal about their experiences during the war. He shows how Americans grappled with their fears, desires, and struggles while they slept, and how their dreams helped them make sense of the confusion, despair, and loneliness that engulfed them.

White takes readers into the deepest, darkest, and most intimate places of the Civil War, connecting the emotional experiences of soldiers and civilians to the broader history of the conflict, confirming what poets have known for centuries: that there are some truths that are only revealed in the world of darkness.

Excerpt

In the fall of 1861, Julia Ward Howe accompanied her husband, Samuel Gridley Howe, to Washington, D.C. the city, according to one Union volunteer, was “the dirtiest, dustiest, filthiest place I ever saw.” the streets were crowded, the heat and humidity oppressive, and flies and mosquitoes buzzed in people’s faces both indoors and out.

Julia and Samuel found a room at Willard’s Hotel, a few blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. While New York City diarist George Templeton Strong believed that Beelzebub “surely reigns there,” Willard’s really was the place to see and be seen—all of the prominent socialites and military officers stopped there when they visited the nation’s capital.

On November 18, the Howes escaped the bustle and filth of the city and attended a grand review of the Army of the Potomac just outside of the capital, in Virginia. Fearing a Confederate attack, Gen. George B. McClellan broke up the review, and the Howes and the other sightseers retreated back to Washington. During the long carriage ride, they sang war songs, including “John Brown’s Body”:

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
But his soul goes marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
His soul goes marching on.

The song continued for a few more verses and choruses, and soldiers near the carriage joined in the revelry. One of Howe’s companions turned to her and remarked that she should write “some good words for that stirring tune,” to which she replied, “I had often wished to do this, but had not as yet found in my mind any leading toward it.”

But soon an inspiration would come to her. Before daybreak the next morning, Howe awoke from her slumber with words flooding into her mind. Still “in a half dreaming state,” she “sprang out of bed,” grabbed “an . . .

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