Jonathan W. White: A Shadow Over My Heart: The Transformation of a Northern Woman’s Dream Life during the Civil War

midnight in america by jonathan whiteToday we welcome a guest post by Jonathan W. White, author of Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War. 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, 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.

In this post White follows the transformation of one woman’s dream life as revealed in her Civil War letters to her soldier husband.


Sitting at home, alone, many women in the North and South were overcome by feelings of fear and grief as their husbands fought on faraway battlefields. For all too many, nighttime only exacerbated their concerns. Nightmares of blood and gore tortured countless wives. And yet over time, some women gradually overcame such fearful feelings—even in their dreams.

In upstate New York, Cora Benton “felt depressed in spirit” when her husband, Charlie, left to become a soldier in August 1862. One night in November she “dreamed you had been in battle, and after the company had got back to camp, I rushed in to find you gone—dead and buried on the field, without one look, one word. I was frantic with grief, and although I know ‘twas but a dream, it seemed so real I have not been able to throw off the influence during the day.” It was “hard enough to bear your absence during waking hours, not to be thus harassed while sleeping,” she wrote to Charlie the next morning. “Every time I dream of you, they are always hurrying you away before I can get to you to speak with you. Oh! it was cruel not to let you come to me.” Cora then closed her sorrowful letter, “Good Night, dear, dear husband; may the time speedily come when my good-nights will not take days to reach you. ‘Oh! My lonely, lonely, lonely pillow.’”[1]

Bad dreams continued to haunt Cora over the ensuing months. In January 1863, she told Charlie she was “having troubled dreams of you.” In February, she dreamed that he looked older and had “two deep wrinkles across your fore head.” The two embraced and “fondly kissed” and fortunately in this dream “you were not hurried from me as in previous dreams.”[2] But in August the bad dreams returned. After waking up one morning, Cora felt “rather sad” and ready to cry. She had dreamed of hugging Charlie and asking him when he was coming home, but he replied in a frustrated voice, “It is always so—just as I get a little contented, you spoil it all.” He began to sing a camp song “to forget home and wife.” “Your voice was very sweet,” she told him in a letter, “but each line went like a sword-thrust to my heart; and begging your forgiveness for giving you pain, I stood up weeping from the pain you had given me, and I you.”

This “vivid” dream threw “a shadow over my heart all day,” Cora wrote, and she interpreted it as a sign that her letters were not supportive enough of Charlie’s service to the nation. Indeed, she took her dream to be a “warning to me to write differently to my husband than I have done” so that she would not make him discontented in his military service. But in her heart of hearts she could not help herself. “I want to see you so much,” she quickly added, and “I can’t hardly help saying so, and telling you how my heart aches.”[3]

Over time, Cora became more active in civic life and economic matters. In April 1864, for example, she founded a small school for local children in her upstate New York community. She still desperately longed for her husband’s return, but she also found ways to occupy her time and better her family’s living conditions. When Charlie advised her on what to do about a physical ailment, she playfully replied, “You forget you don’t take care of me much now, and I am not quite as dependent as I used to be on you. There will be two heads [of household] after this—do you understand, darling?”

It is little wonder that a change also came about in Cora’s dreams. Never again did she report a nightmare or troubled dream. “I had a very precious dream of you Friday night, and it seemed so real I felt happy all day yesterday,” she wrote in May 1864. “I saw you plainly, and was sitting in your lap with my head on your shoulder, resting as I’d like to be this hour. It seemed very natural, and I’d like to dream so every night.” She continued: “I am sure of one thing—I must work while you are gone in order to live at all, and I am willing to do so, while I keep well. It is needless to say I am weary of living as we do, and I wish the time was up for you to be away. I dreamed it was, last Friday night, but that did not make it so. We will try to be patient, and do our separate works faithfully, till God says it is enough, and we go hand in hand together again.”[4]

Cora Benton’s development into a more independent woman manifested itself in her dream life, and she revealed that growth in her letters to her husband. It may seem ironic that her dreams would become more positive at the very point when the war was becoming most destructive and dangerous—the summer of 1864—yet it may be because she was becoming more autonomous and self-reliant. As desperately as she longed to be with Charlie, she now knew a sense of confidence and self-worth that she had never known before. It is little wonder that she could write in her final letter to her husband in June 1865—reflecting on the hardships she had faced and overcome throughout the war—“I am not crushed, but sit here to-night stronger than when you left me.”[5]


Jonathan W. White is associate professor of American studies at Christopher Newport University. This piece is adapted from his book, Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War. You can follow him on Twitter @CivilWarJon and visit his website at

[1] Cora to Charlie, November 6, 1862, in Thomas R. Taber, ed., Hard Breathing Days: The Civil War Letters of Cora Beach Benton, Albion, New York, 1862-1865 (Albion, N.Y.: Almeron Press, 2003), 18-19.

[2] Cora to Charlie, January 20 and February 10, 1863, in ibid., 81, 101.

[3] Cora to Charlie, August 23, 1863, in ibid., 224-25.

[4] Cora to Charlie, April 17, May 22, 29, and December 25, 1864, all in ibid., 314-16, 327, 331-32, 416.

[5] Cora to Charlie, June 4, 1865 in ibid., 460.