Starting in my mid-teens, and continuing regularly until my mid-20s, I dreamt the American Civil War. Through my dream-eyes, certain landscapes became familiar – hot fields in blinding sun; cold, dark streams; dirt roads through undulating hills with trees, clearings, fields and split-rail fences. In these dreams, I fought for the Confederacy. No Gone with the Wind southern plantations; no mint julips on wide porches; no southern belles and chivalrous gentlemen. Just dust and dirt; sweat and terror; desperation and survival; and an overwhelming sense of trying to get back home.
I was a Canadian teen-ager whose father was a history buff. We had books on the Civil War; I didn’t start to consume them until the dreams began. Scrolling through a list of Civil War movies and television on ImBD reveals films and shows I could have seen prior to my dreamscapes. Some even stir up vague recollections. Of course, there are books like Little Women and The Red Badge of Courage, the short stories of Ambrose Bierce. Taken together, there is a backstory of film and literature that could have influenced me.
I thought of it as “inherited memory;” linking me to a phantom branch of my family tree. These vivid dreams fit into a kind of reincarnation narrative; a relived experience. The frequency and intensity of the dreams faded with time, though in my mind, I can still see the landscape, feel the icy water or blazing dusty heat. I dream in vivid colour, but my memory of dreams is usually fleeting. If I could verbalize these visuals, I’d be a famous novelist, screen writer and show runner! Even a Broadway musical composer (though I am tone deaf, have a singing voice like a shrieking demon and the only instrument I can manage is the kazoo) as my dreamscape can revolve like an on-stage musical.
Years later, I watched Ken Burn’s Civil War documentary with fascination, wondering if I would see myself in the old photographs or recognize a landscape in the battle field sites. I knew there was a connection stretching back generations between “the Boston States,” and my father’s family in Nova Scotia. But, I never “saw” my dreamscapes, nor sensed myself within Burn’s narrative.
I moved to the US in the early 2000s; I’ve yet to visit any Civil War sites, or experience a re-enactment of camp life or the battles. However, I have plugged my father’s last name into Civil War records data bases. Not surprisingly, there were soldiers on both sides of the conflict listed, and the Union outnumbered the Confederacy. A connection to the South not part of any family lore.
I should admit there is a disconnect in my father’s family history. My father had a wicked sense of humor – his tales couldn’t be completely trusted. His mother rewrote the genealogy (erasing, editing, creating) so there is no longer fact – mostly just fiction. I suppose when I had my DNA profile done through 23andme, I could have indicated I wanted to be in the genealogy data bank. I chose to have my “spit” sample destroyed, and my information kept private. The disconnect continues.
So, what were those dreams? Inherited memory that somehow broke through when I was in my mid-teens? I have never had other dreams with such a consistent historical narrative. I have dreamscapes based on anxiety which involve recurring themes; nightmares with particular symbols; surreal dreams within dreams; historical set pieces.
Once the dreams stopped in my mid-twenties, that night-time narrative thread never appeared again. Occasionally, in a dream, I will travel through that landscape, but in the recent past or present. But, I’m not a Confederate soldier trying to survive the war, hiding from Union troops and trying, desperately, to make his way home. As I once, so vividly, was.
I began writing this “expository” essay prior to the creative writing piece I posted. But, while I no longer dream of the Civil War, the images come back to haunt me. I’ve written a couple of short fictional pieces based upon the dreams as I remember them so clearly thirty plus years on.
For mlmm’s tale weaver: dream a little dream of me.
images: perkons @ pixabay