Friday, January 5, 2018

Author Q&A - Jonathan White on "Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War" and "'Our Little Monitor': The Greatest Invention of the Civil War"

Jonathan W. White (pictured at left) is associate professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University and a senior fellow with CNU’s Center for American Studies. He's also one of the field's best, most interesting, and increasingly prolific young historians. His current list of Civil War related titles includes A Philadelphia Perspective: The Civil War Diary of Sidney George Fisher (2007), Abraham Lincoln and Treason in the Civil War: The Trials of John Merryman (2011), Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln (2014), and Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War (2017). Emancipation was a finalist for both the Lincoln and Jefferson Davis book prizes, and it won the honor from the Abraham Lincoln Institute in 2015. It was also the CWBA Book of the Year. Midnight in America (UNC Press) has also garnered wide praise, and that current title is the subject of this interview, as well as the upcoming Our Little Monitor: The Greatest Invention of the Civil War (Kent St UP, 2018) with co-author Anna Gibson Holloway.

DW: Many Civil War scholars settle into a somewhat predictable pattern of interests, but each new book from you seems to differ radically from what came before it. Is this by design?

JW: I have to confess that I’ve not been systematic in how I’ve chosen my topics. I have a file on my computer with about a dozen book ideas—things I’d like to write about some day. Any time I am doing research I keep an eye out for materials that might be useful for those other projects, and if I find anything I tuck it into the file for later use. Usually as I am finishing up a project I have a sense of which one I’ll choose next from that list. While my training is in political and constitutional history, I have a lot of varying interests when it comes to the Civil War. I think the main thing that guides me is that I don’t want to rehash what other historians have written. So I’ll probably never write a biography of Lincoln or Grant. But if I can find aspects of Lincoln’s life that haven’t explored in much detail—those are the sorts of questions that get me excited about writing.


DW: What prompted you to write a book about the American Civil War and dreams?

JW: One of my favorite history books is Joseph J. Ellis’s Founding Brothers, which won the Pulitzer Prize a number of years ago. In it, Ellis describes how Thomas Jefferson and John Adams renewed their friendship in the early nineteenth century, in part by sharing their dreams with each other. I remember reading that about 10 years ago and thinking that I would like to write a history of the Civil War through the dreams of the people who experienced it first hand. I started collecting dream reports in letters and diaries around 2008, but I quickly realized that I wouldn’t be able to do a grand narrative of the war through dreams. So instead I kept searching for dream reports until certain patterns emerged. At that point I arranged the research into topical chapters.


DW: What are the major themes of Midnight in America?

JW: I think the single most important theme is “home.” When soldiers went to sleep at night they were thinking about home. And dreams of home were probably the most common dream experience for soldiers. Dreaming of home gave soldiers a chance to visit with loved ones, to taste homemade cooking, and to escape from the stresses of the battlefield. But equally important, when soldiers saw their wives and children in their dreams they experienced a visual reminder of why they were fighting and who they were fighting for. In an almost tangible way, I think that dreams of loved ones help motivate and sustain soldiers through four very long years of war.


DW: It sort of goes without saying in modern times that no one wants to hear about your dreams. What compelled the Civil War generation to correspond about them so extensively?

JW: It’s funny that you ask that because I’ve been asked about my dreams during the Q&A at several of my public talks, and on a few occasions I’ve had people tell me about their dreams—sometimes with a little too much detail!

As for the Civil War generation, this was a culture that was deeply interested in supernatural and spiritual aspects of life. Dreams were a big part of that. For soldiers, another part of the equation was just how vivid their dreams were. Modern sleep research has found connections between exhaustion and the vividness of dreams. I would guess that soldiers were experiencing some really vivid and exciting dreams because of the exhaustion that they faced in the field. And when they had vivid dreams of home they naturally wanted to write home about them.


DW: Did you find in the source material broad commonalities in dream imagery?

JW: Imagery in dreams is something that a lot of people paid attention to in the nineteenth century. They had manuals and dream books that could tell you what your dreams meant. And belief in symbolism was very widespread. Often dreamers remarked on the “opposite” nature of dreams symbols. For instance, if you dreamed of a wedding it meant that you should expect to attend a funeral soon, or if you dreamt about death then things would be all right in your life. In the book these ideas comes out the most in the chapter on slaves’ dreams because slaves and ex-slaves often discussed the symbolism they saw in their dreams. One of the most surprising things I found, though, was that white Americans tended to have the same beliefs about dream symbolism as black Americans. On the one hand many whites looked down on African Americans for placing too much credence in their dreams, but at the same time there were plenty of white dreamers who looked to African Americans to discern the meanings of their dreams.


DW: Most Civil War readers are familiar with soldier premonitions of death. Are there other connections between the dream world and the living world that Civil War soldiers and civilians took seriously?

JW: As might be expected, the dreams of Civil War-era Americans tell us a lot about the worries and anxieties people experienced during the war. Fears of marital infidelity often materialized in dreams. It’s interesting, though, that soldiers and civilians did not always make the connection between their dreams and their waking hours. One example has really stuck out to me. I found an Arkansas soldier who had a dream in January 1863 about his aunt treating a black man with respect. The soldier was very politically aware—he knew about things like the Emancipation Proclamation. But when he described the dream in a letter to his parents he told them he didn’t know what it meant. Clearly he was thinking about the social revolution that was beginning to take place in the country and it was having an effect on his sleeping brain. But when he remembered the dream the next morning he didn’t connect it to his fears of black equality.


DW: Abraham Lincoln is surely the most famous Civil War dreamer. What new information or interpretation does your book contribute to that topic and discussion?

JW: Lincoln is said to have had some really astounding dreams connected to his assassination. I think that one of them is authentic but I think that others are fabrications. One of the most famous stories is that Lincoln dreamt of his own funeral in the White House. Using digital sources I was able to track down some very early iterations of that dream. I think it was fiction, but I know there are some Lincoln scholars out there I have yet to convince.


DW: Your next book, co-authored with Anna Gibson Holloway, concerns a well-known part of Civil War naval history, the USS Monitor. How will this study differ from previous works on the subject?

JW: Anna and I are really excited about this project. For years Anna was a vice president at The Mariners’ Museum, in Newport News, Virginia, and curator of the USS Monitor Center. So she was responsible for how the artifacts from the Monitor’s wreck site were displayed to the general public, and worked side by side with the archaeologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the conservation team at The Mariners’. I think she knows more about the Monitor and the Battle of Hampton Roads than almost anyone else living.

Our book brings together a lot of topics on the Monitor that have received less attention from other historians. We have the well-known story of the construction and the battle, but then we also bring in how the Monitor has been a part of American popular culture since 1862 and also new things that have been discovered in the conservation process over the last decade or more.


DW: Are there significant Monitor-related document collections that have been underutilized or overlooked altogether by previous authors?

JW: We have some archival sources in the book that have never been used before, including eyewitness accounts of the battle and of the sinking. We were also able to locate materials that naval historians would not normally utilize. For instance, we have a wonderful story of a Union soldier who was court-martialed for fleeing when the CSS Virginia first emerged in Hampton Roads. The poor guy was so terrified that he ran into the woods. He later blamed it on a woman—he said that he was trying to protect her. But the military officers presiding over his trial knew better and sentenced him to hard labor at Fort Wool for the remainder of his enlistment.


DW: Study of another technologically advanced Civil War vessel, the CSS Hunley, has benefited immeasurably from close integration of the more traditional avenues of historical inquiry with new advances in conflict archaeology and anthropology. Is this also the case with your Monitor research?

JW: Yes, absolutely. And this is where Anna’s experience was crucial. She worked closely with the people who were involved in bringing the turret out of the Graveyard of the Atlantic, and she has been intimately involved in the conservation process and thus we have been able to combine traditional academic research with newer approaches. She views the Monitor, as well as other war wrecks, as multi-layered maritime cultural landscapes that are both physical and cognitive, stretching through space and time. Her expertise in these regards gives the book something that I think will be new and exciting for most Civil War readers.


DW: For the final question, what are you working on now?

JW: I’ve got a few projects going right now. Over the last year and a half I’ve been working with a talented student of mine to edit the letters of a student at Dickinson College during the Civil War. These letters have never been published but they offer a really incredible window into northern middle class civilian life. I am also co-editing a volume of essays on Ex parte Milligan, the landmark 1866 Supreme Court case that held that it was unconstitutional to try civilians in military courts when the civil courts were open and functioning. But my big book project is a biography of an alleged slave trader named Appleton Oaksmith. Oaksmith was a nineteenth-century adventurer who traveled all over the world in the 1850s and then got himself into a heap of trouble during the Civil War. The Lincoln administration arrested him for fitting out ships for slaving voyages in 1861 but he broke out of jail and became a Confederate blockade runner. Along the way he had a number of daring exploits on the high seas. I’m hoping that his story will catch the attention of a broader reading public, and I think it would make a wonderful television miniseries. I’ve written more than 200 pages of the story and I plan to finish writing sometime this spring.

DW: Thank you, Jon!

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