What follows is a guest essay by Wanda Burch has spent 42 years in historic preservation. She recently retired as site manager of Johnson Hall State Historic Site and now serves as Vice-President of Friends of Johnson Hall. She is a regular contributor to the online news magazine New York History.
On August 7, 1862, Henry Graves, physically exhausted from walking, fighting, and from four days detail digging trenches under a Petersburg, Virginia, sun and not “a breath of air stirring,” sat down and wrote to his wife, describing the importance of the imagination to survival.
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.” 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.
A search for similar letters led me to archives, published memoirs, genealogy websites, poems written from dreams, and to the physical landscape of the battlefields where the letters were written. I created an itinerary from three of the soldiers’ letters, two from Confederate regiments and one from a New York regiment. These letters represented the experiences of most of the soldiers who wrote dreams of home to their families, friends, and loved ones.
The New York letters are part of a collection written by Charles Hagar, a chaplain with the 118th New York Infantry, known as the “Adirondack” regiment. Charles Hagar was born June 29, 1819 in Vermont; lived in Plattsburgh, NY, with his wife Elizabeth Hagar (1820-1888), whom he married November 20, 1839, in Saratoga. He enlisted as a chaplain on August 21, 1862, in New York City, was commissioned as an officer on September 2, 1862, and mustered out on June 13, 1865, in Richmond, Virginia. He died on August 28, 1890, in Essex County at the age of 71.
Charles possibly had a better chance at surviving the war than those who were in the thick of the battles, but he witnessed the horror of severed limbs, crushed spirits and demoralized souls. His spiritual counseling placed him in a position of empathy but also burdened him with the sadness, anxieties and depression of his own place in the war – and his need to understand it – as well as experiencing the burden of the spiritual and physical wounds of those entrusted in his care.
His letters bloom with love for his children, wife, and home. Dreams, music, and poetic sentiments punctuate the harsh environment of his ministry to the sick and wounded. Through all of it, he writes: “the home voices speak louder than the drums.” Dreams of home were the most common dreams recorded in the letters of the battle-worn soldier; dreams of home offered solace and presented a possible future of return to a place of comfort and safety; but these dreams were also troubling in the reality of their presence in a place so far from home.
Charles’ first recorded dream was penned in 1862, six miles from Petersburg and fifteen miles from Richmond, in the area of Suffolk. His regiment was awaiting action from General Meade’s army when, anxious and concerned for the well-being of those in his regiment, he dreamed of home. The dream was so vivid that he found it “difficult to throw off the impression all day,” and he was still troubled by its nearness four days after its event. Several weeks later, after writing to his family about the death of a soldier, Charles dreamed of his young son, James, and nostalgically reported his campfire as burning brightly on the hearth. He longed for home.
In 1863 he awoke from a vivid dream of seeing himself and his wife, Elizabeth, seated at the breakfast table in an “old-fashioned double chair.” The dream cheered him and placed him in a “very pleasant frame of mind”; and he humorously wrote that he wanted all of it be “so” except the old chair. The tone changed a few short letters later.
On February 21, 1863, Charles dreamt that his wife was sitting alone in a chair, appearing lonely and lonesome. He awoke from this dream agitated over her missing him so badly. Not questioning the reality of this dream, he took action to change the dream, determined to create a happy scene of home from this decidedly sad one, so he wrote to her that she must have her “image” taken, thinking of how close it would bring them and the smile it would put on her countenance. She must, he wrote, send the image to him and he would do the same, mentioning that he hoped this would cheer her up in future dreams. He followed through. In his next location in Suffolk, Virginia, he passed by a shop that charged $1.50 for a “picture taken.” He was appalled at the extravagance but marched in and had his photograph taken and sent to his wife. He reminded her to send one of herself.
Letters over the next few years alternated between descriptions of the wounded, the battles, the dying, the stench of the wounded and dead, the odor permeating the landscape as they marched or camped, to aching expressions of longing for home and family, short descriptions of “dreaming of home” lifting Charles’ spirit night after night.
Henry Graves had written from his Georgia regiment that the gift of the imagination was equal to the gift of the night dream. Writing from his work at a hospital at Point of Rocks, Bermuda Hundred in 1865, Charles Hagar would undoubtedly have agreed with him: “You are aware that my imagination is very vivid, so I imagine a Kiss to you every night—before I go to sleep.” A few days later, March 25, 1865, he wrote about a charming moment, designed to please Elizabeth: …”Coming up the stairs from the river this afternoon I stumbled and fell up stairs. Some of the surgeon’s wives laughing said, chaplain that is a sign that you will dream of your sweet-heart tonight—I put my hand on my heart—saying O Ladies, I have dreamed of her every night for a week past.”
In these and many hundreds of other letters from the American Civil War, each recorded dream reflects the personality of its author. In these letters there is rarely a sense of non-reliability in these dreams, even when the writer awakes to find it was “just a dream.” “Just a dream” is not disbelief; it is more an expression that the dream has ended and left the soldier on the battlefield or longing for home in camp. These letters record a time when the American culture accepted dreams as a valued indicator of life and death, of hope and sorrow, a precognitive hold on humanity that allowed the soldier to survive horrible living conditions, loneliness, depression, and the bodily deprivations of war and prison. These dreams were, as Graves wrote, “angels of mercy” to the “soldier mortal.” John Tidd, a private in the 109th NY regiment, wrote that “…the absent …soldier … often thinks and meditates on the past pleasures of home, and… sometimes even think they are enjoying the pleasures of the home circle…these thoughts are…felt in midnight dreams. One cannot realize what it is to be a soldier till they have tried its realtys. … Hard as it is, we are all willing to endure the hardships and privations of a soldier’s life. I to, leave home, friends and all the comforts with which we were surrounded and go forth and fight the enemys of our country…”
Dreaming of home is a universal safety net, a missing piece in our understanding and treatment of soldiers returning from today’s battlefields; a place where souls and hearts can mend and find humanity even on the battlefield where 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 battlefield that we cannot reclaim the power of dreaming as a vital part of healing for the soldier returning home from a physical nightmare.
Illustration: A letter (on a common soldier’s letterhead) by Peter Theroux, who enlisted at Plattsburg, NY as a Private in the 118th Regiment (the Adirondack Regiment) in August of 1862. Theroux died of typhus in September 1863 at Gloucester Point, VA.