Civil War Soldiers’ Wet Dreams

The American Civil War is arguably the most written about topic in American history. Yet for all that has been researched and published, sexuality during the Civil War has been difficult to uncover. This is not due to lack of interest; instead, it is the product of the silences surrounding sexuality during the era. As even pioneering historian Bell Irvin Wiley noted, Civil War soldiers and civilians rarely wrote about sex and sexuality, deeming the topic taboo. A handful of historians have attempted to shed light on sexuality during the war by researching prostitution and syphilis, and Judith Giesberg’s recent Sex and the Civil War explores the problem of pornography in camp. However, another unorthodox avenue to get a more intimate view of Civil War soldiers’ sexuality and desires is in their dreams.

Civil War soldiers enjoyed sex dreams during the war and recounted them to loved ones to maintain intimacy during their prolonged absence while soldiering. As Jonathan White notes in his new book, Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams in the Civil War, soldiers and civilians frequently wrote to each other, narrating and analyzing their dreams.1 Dreams could serve as a link between battlefront and homefront, and men saw dreams as a way of communing with far off wives and family. Occasionally, soldiers were candid about the sexual nature of those dreams, demonstrating their love and reaffirming the importance of sexual intimacy, even when separated.

Life in a Civil War camp was a lonely and womanless existence, aside from the presence of laundresses, camp followers, and officers’ wives. “Occasionally a woman passes camp and it is a three days wonder,” Edwin H. Fay wrote his wife. “But women only serve to remind me of you and our separation and I don’t care to see them.”2 Men sought to maintain a connection to home through letters, furloughs, and, when they couldn’t make physical contact with home, dreams.

three men in Union uniforms sit in camp chairs, while three more men stand around then, also in Union uniforms. There is a large canvas tent behind them.
Civil War camp. (Miller/Flickr Commons)

In March 1864 as Private William Stillwell lay on the ground waiting for sleep, he thought about his wife Mollie, and how at that moment she may have been “lying in bed,” perhaps “not asleep but resting” her “weary body.” When Stillwell finally fell asleep, his dreams focused on his wife Mollie and being with her again. “I thought we were together and had walked into a garden of flowers,” Stillwell wrote Mollie. “We came to a pretty bunch of flowers and stopped to look at them, one on either side. I thought you raised your head to see what I was doing. I looked at you and you smiled … I sprang over the flowers to catch you around the waist.”3

At that moment, someone woke Stillwell and he was forced out of the dream. Such a dream had numerous sexual overtones running through it: beauty, intimacy, and passion. The garden was private, just Stillwell and Mollie. There, Stillwell could let loose the reins of his passion, losing all control and exploding through the foliage to seize Mollie and clutch her in the throes of ecstasy.

Sexual dreams were not always positive. Sometimes, dreams of women made soldiers depressed and homesick. This was no trifling matter. Extreme homesickness, known as nostalgia, was believed to be a life threatening ailment.4 Other times, love affairs had soured or relationships had ended, which left men depressed, and dreams only served to make that depression more painful. In late 1861, Private John Mead Gould recorded in his diary, “I had a dream of a fair lady last night and I have felt home sick all day as a consequence.”5

Seven men surround and tend to one wounded soldier in a cramped tent space.
Hospital scene, probably Fort Monroe, VA, during the Civil War. (George Stacy/Library of Congress)

The following spring, Gould received a letter from a friend back home in Maine, who mentioned having dreams of women. He wrote back: “Occasionally I dream as you did of loving some fair one and the love I feel for her lasts me a whole day.” But he ultimately concluded: “Love I imagine is too powerful a passion for a man whose great ambition is to be 2nd Lieutenant. Aside from frivality [sic.] I am glad I love no woman.”6

A few men wrote letters that described dreams in even more explicit sexual detail. These letters demonstrate that Civil War soldiers were not necessarily the prudish Victorians we might sometimes think. In January of 1864, John Alexander Foster received a letter from Mary Jane Strain Foster in which she apparently disclosed a sexual dream she had had involving Foster. Foster responded with an explicit letter acknowledging her dream, as well as confessing to having his own sexual dreams and much more:

So you don’t care how many babies I make so [long as] you get helping me to make them? Well that is all right. And Betsy never dreamed about Davie but the once, and felt as if he was at his old pranks. Can’t you tell still whether you have the sensation or not? I think you can. Davie dreamed about Betsy twice. I was wakened to while he was having the sensation, as my shirt fully attested. Why it would make Betsy feel good too look at the fire and warm her up, and finger about her. She likes it I know, and I’ll bet you’ll sleep good after it and have pleasant dreams. Try it and tell me if it is not so.7

Foster’s letter is a remarkably candid and intimate portrait of a married couple. Foster acknowledged his wife’s sexual dream, confessed to experiencing his own sexual dreams, and then urged his wife to masturbate. Foster used nicknames, Davie and Betsy, to refer to himself and his wife, in an almost laughable attempt to establish a secrecy lest anyone would find or read their letters. Foster also urged his wife, understandably, to hide their letters and not let anyone else see them.

Lithographed movie poster of a Union soldier and woman embrace in an idyllic field scene.
Theatrical poster for Shenandoah. Caption: Col. West: “Believe me, Gertrude, I am truly sorry to be in such a position myself.” Gertrude: “You don’t like the position.” (Strobridge Lith. Co./Library of Congress)

In April 1864, Foster wrote his wife again asking her if she had experienced any more sexual dreams involving the two of them. “All this seems too sensual to put to writing but it stirs me up makes me feel good for the time being and when I get answers to such writing from you it makes me feel better,” he wrote. “It hurts neither of us either physically or morally and anything that can afford us pleasure that is perfectly harmless when confined to ourselves is I think perfectly right. We are as it were one. What the one experiences the other may know and sympathize with them. If it creates pleasure as a matter of course we ought to share it.”8

Foster rationalized all this as simply pleasure and enjoyment between a married couple – in direct contrast to many mental health professionals at the time who believed that masturbation and excessive sexuality were immoral and could lead to insanity.9 Foster was gently suggesting that pleasures of the flesh, including wet dreams and masturbation, were beautiful, normal, and natural.

In the same year, William Herrick, a Confederate soldier from Georgia, went to sleep on a cold September night. Dotty, Herrick’s wife, was the subject of many of his dreams. “You don’t know half of what I think of you all the time,” Herrick wrote Dotty. “I keeps dreaming of you a good deal.” As Herrick slept on the ground with his company in 1864, Dotty entered his dreams yet again. This time, the subject of his dream was much more intimate and sexual. “I dreamed I was with you, Dot, and we was on the bed,” Herrick wrote. “I had covered you two or three times, and we ‘joyed ourselves tarnal. Well, now, my dear Dot, I believe I’d got you in a baby way.”

Moreover, his sexual dream reminded Herrick of previous sexual encounters that he had engaged in with his wife. “I will never forget that night you and I ate them eels, Dot,” William wrote. “It made you so slippery I could hardly find you in the morning.” Thinking about his sexual fantasies and reminiscing about being with his wife Dotty, made Herrick sexually aroused, which he admitted in an unbelievably candid testimony in the end of his letter: “Well now, Dot, I must stop, for thinking of you makes my old thing look me right up in the eyes”10

Sexual dreams were a way for soldiers to connect with their wives and sweethearts on the homefront, and relive or keep alive intimacy. Removed from home, sometimes for the first time, soldiers could only connect with their families through letters, furloughs and — in a way — dreams. Dreams were, perhaps, a nineteenth century equivalent of video chats. Men used sexual dreams as an opportunity to reminisce of a scene long past, or to imagine intimate moments in the future.

Soldiers often asked, sometimes even demanded, that their wives meet them in dreamland. “Oh, Mollie, I have loved as never man loved almost,” William Stillwell wrote to his wife. “Come tonight and let me kiss you, dear!” His dreams remained his only opportunity to be with his wife. His infrequent furlough ensured that he rarely saw her, but in his dreams, they could be together.11

Notes

  1. Jonathan W. White, Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017), xii-xxii. Return to text.
  2. Bell Irvin Wiley, ed., “This Infernal War”: The Confederate Letters of Sgt. Edwin H. Fay (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1958), 203. Return to text.
  3. William Stillwell to Mollie Stillwell, 23 March 1864, William Ross Stillwell Civil War Letters, Georgia Department of Archives and History, Morrow, Georgia. Return to text.
  4. Frances Clarke, “So Lonesome I Could Die: Nostalgia and Debates Over Emotional Control in the Civil War North,” Journal of Social History 41 (2007), 254; David Anderson, “Dying of Nostalgia: Homesickness in the Union Army during the Civil War,” Civil War History 3 (September 2010), 248. Return to text.
  5. William B. Jordan, Jr., ed., The Civil War Journals of John Mead Gould, 1861-1866 (Baltimore: Butternut & Blue, 1997), 76. Return to text.
  6. Ibid., 95. Return to text.
  7. Walter L. Powell, ed., Letters from the Storm: The Intimate Civil War Letters of Lt. J.A.H. Foster (Chicora, PA: Firefly Publications, 2010), 182; Davie and Betsy were nicknames for Foster and his wife. Return to text.
  8. Powell, ed., Letters from the Storm, 193. Return to text.
  9. Gerald N. Grob, The Mad Among Us: A History of the Care of America’s Mentally Ill (New York: The Free Press, 1994), 60. Return to text.
  10. William Herrick to Dotty Herrick, September 18, 1864, William Herrick Letter, Hargrett Library and Special Collections, University of Georgia. Return to text.
  11. William Stillwell to Mollie Stillwell, March 23, 1864, William Ross Stillwell Civil War Letters, Georgia Department of Archives and History, Morrow, Georgia. Return to text.

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One Comment

Robin

I read “Betsy” and “Davie” possibly as affectionate nicknames for the respective genitals, not as “almost laughable” attempts at pseudonyms.

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