In His New Book, Historian Jonathan White Explores Nighttime During the Civil War

White argues that it might have been the most sleepless period in American history.
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White argues that it might have been the most sleepless period in American history.
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Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams During the Civil War. (Photo: University of North Carolina Press)

Midnight In America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams During the Civil War
Jonathan W. White
University of North Carolina Press

The historian Jonathan White spent years tracking down Civil War-era letters in which Americans talk about their sleep. Midnight in America is a straightforward account of what he found. Nighttime during the Civil War, White argues, “might reasonably be considered the most sleepless period in American history.” Chronically exhausted by combat and travel, soldiers at the front had vivid dreams of home, food, sweethearts, and sex. Beset by worry, their wives and family members were plagued by terrifying nighttime visions of the battlefield. Slaves, no strangers to sleep deprivation, dreamed increasingly of escape and freedom. All this might sound predictable enough, but the quoted letters create a sense of intimacy with wartime lives that is eerie and intense, at times rivaling the highest achievements of art.

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