Jonathan W. White

Midnight in America

Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War

University of North Carolina Press 2017

New Books in American StudiesNew Books in Arts & LettersNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Military HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in Popular CultureNew Books Network December 15, 2017 Michael Amico

What were the dreams of the Civil War? Find out by listening to my conversation with Jonathan White about his new book Midnight in...

What were the dreams of the Civil War? Find out by listening to my conversation with Jonathan White about his new book Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

Jonathan W. White is associate professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University. He is the author of several books and almost one hundred articles, essays, and reviews about the Civil War. His earlier book, Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln, was the winner and finalist for a number of book prizes.

Now he has written a book about a subject few, if anyone, has known much about—and that in itself is a feat for Civil War history. Midnight in America surveys the dreams of soldiers, civilians, African Americans, the dying, and Abraham Lincoln, including how those dreams were represented in popular culture. The dreams he includes are truly strange, with all the wacky juxtapositions we expect in our own dreaming. Indeed, what White’s book shows overall is that it is the dreams during the Civil War, and not any more the wakeful, sober analyses of official accounts, that most clearly reveal the life of the country, with all its fears, desires, and struggles.

Soldiers’ dreams of home (the most prominent ‘theme’ of their dreams) pivoted around feelings of vulnerability and mortality, and, consequently, the need for care and affection. We talk about how their dreams harbored fears of being cheated upon, forgotten, no longer important, and even replaced—fears many times instigated by not having received a letter from home recently. Dreaming is how we get through the day, even as, in their most free-ranging forms, dreams can reveal that which we are trying to escape. As we discuss in our conversation, surveying the content of these dreams offers a view of the emotional dynamics that underwrote ‘the war,’ as well as the dreamer’s drive to fight. We also discuss the differences between white and black cultures of dreaming. The stark divides of the relationships that appeared in the dreams of soldiers and their families back home were on full display in the daily lives of slaves. In contrast to white people, African-Americans gave dreaming a more central, ritualistic place in their cultural practices. And while in public slaveowners presented a ‘rational’ defense of slavery, their dreams evinced a complex recognition of the humanity of black people. The very “dream” of a perfect union, with clear differences between good and evil, especially as sentimentalized in popular culture, was premised on the fear of disunion, disconnection, and incompleteness in ones own life. For better and worse, the war was a dream.


Michael Amico holds a PhD in American Studies from Yale University. His dissertation, “The Forgotten Union of the Two Henrys: The True Story of the Peculiar and Rarest Intimacy of the American Civil War,” is about the romance between Henry Clay Trumbull and Henry Ward Camp of the Tenth Connecticut Regiment. He is the author, with Michael Bronski and Ann Pellegrini, of “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People (Beacon, 2013), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Nonfiction. He can be reached at [email protected].

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