Thursday, April 27, 2017

In a Gay and Fastidious Manner

To sleep, perchance to wet dream...but during the Civil War?

The topic of today's Banner Lecture at the Virginia Historical Society - "Civil War Dreams" - had the three little old ladies I always sit next to completely perplexed. What can you possibly say in a lecture about dreaming?

I told them my best guess was that Yankee author Jonathan White had gone down the rabbit hole of letters and diaries from that era if he'd been able to assemble enough anecdotal evidence to write a book called "Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep and Dreams During the Civil War."

Bingo. They looked at me nodding once his talk got underway. I'd nailed it.

Using notes without sounding robotic and inserting plenty of humor, White began with Jefferson Davis' dreams of his family from his cell (overly and constantly bright as a means of sleep deprivation) at Fort Monroe and moved on to wife Varina's dreams of him being captured.

Soldiers' letters, it seems, were full of dream reports used as a way to stay close to loved ones but also to share emotional concerns and, let me tell you, these soldiers were not shy about their concerns. Adultery was high on the list, as was the fear of being ignored once the man returned home.

Yet, despite the concerns that manifested themselves in dreams, these men still felt close enough to their wives and sweethearts to write them about these dreams.

Because Mars and Venus are very different types, men's dreams revolved around partner, home and hearth - all the things they were fighting for - while women's centered on devious Yankee invaders and fears of their beloved in combat.

He closed out with a heartbreaking story about a 24-year old who'd lost his arm in the war, yet 40 years later, he told a doctor every time he dreamt, he always had both arms and was able to use them normally. Such is the power of dreams that despite living 2/3 of his life as an amputee, in his dreams he was always a whole man.

Tragedy aside, White's talk was most illuminating on the unlikely subject of bodily fluids and I don't mean blood. Turns out wet dreams were grounds for discharge ("No pun intended," White wisecracked) because nocturnal emissions were seen as a legitimate disability.

Like Corporal Klinger's efforts in M*A*S*H*  to secure a Section 8 to escape Army life, plenty of Civil War soldiers feigned wet dreams in hopes of going home. Tough break for them because White said 3/4 of the claims were shown to be bogus, the men having "fabricated" evidence.

I've been to a lot of Banner Lectures, but rarely do they make me and the old ladies crack up like they did today.

Well done, VHS. Foul dreams make for fascinating history.

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