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Dream Work

Local woman plans book involving letters from soldiers who served in the Civil?War

May 27, 2012
By RODNEY MINOR , The Leader Herald

No one has to tell Wanda Burch about the value of dreams.

Burch - who retired in 2010 after spending 35 years as the head of Johnson Hall State Historic Site in Johnstown - dreamed she would be diagnosed with breast cancer before it happened in 1990.

Her subsequent dreams even revealed the location of the tumor. It was a crucial detail, she later learned. Her tumor did not appear readily during a mammogram, but was located after Burch informed her surgeon where he dream indicated the tumor was.

Article Photos

Wanda Burch opens a book to the letter of a soldier who fought in the Civil?War at her home in Glen on?Tuesday.
The Leader-Herald/Rodney?Minor

"Had it not been for those dreams, I would have been dead in a year," she said at her home in Glen on Tuesday. "That's what the surgeon said."

Dreams that seem to eerily show the future are nothing new.

For the last five years, Burch has been working on a book about the dreams recorded in the letters of Civil War soldiers. In one instance, a man noted in a letter that he dreamed he would be involved in a prisoner exchange and would come home to his wife and children.

It turned out he was right. Shortly after, he was among the prisoners exchanged and sent home.

Among the discoveries she has made: soldiers still have vivid dreams of home that have unusual clarity.

When they were out sleeping under the stars while on campaign, surrounded by danger, the soldiers were not having nightmares. They were dreaming of their homes and what waited for them when they returned - family, friends, occupations, etc.

The things people normally take for granted and see every day - how family members look, the details of their home, etc. - seem to form a "safe place" in the minds of soldiers on the battlefield, Burch said.

"What had made life soft, nurturing, comfortable [is what they remember]" she said.

Burch's work began in 2007 in a bookstore in Savannah, Ga. When she opened the book "'Dear Mother: Don't Grieve About Me. If I Get Killed, I'll Only Be Dead.': Letters from Georgia Soldiers in the Civil War," to a random page.

The first words she read were "... soldier mortals would not survive if they were not blessed with the gift of imagination and the pictures of hope. The second angel of mercy is the night dream..."

Burch said the words were written by Henry Graves on the battlefield in Petersburg, Va., in 1862. In writing to his wife, Graves described how in his imagination he was not on the battlefield, but eating from a bowl of peaches at home with his coat off, moving across the piazza and enjoying the cool breeze that always seemed to be there.

His dreams, Burch noted of Graves' writing, gave him a more detailed picture of home than any of his vivid daydreams.

Burch said in reading Graves' words, she knew he had found the same place in his imagination and dreams Burch herself found in her own dreams while battling cancer.

Burch actually wrote a book, "She Who?Dreams, The Healing?Power of Dreamwork," which was a compilation of journal entries of exploration of her dreams, which helped her while battling cancer.

Robert?Moss, a historical novelist and proponent of active dreaming - a way to weave dreamed imagery into everyday life to promote healing - in 2010 called "She Who?Dreams" the "most important book so far published on dreamwork in healing."

She also realized that even soldiers now returning from wars can find the same refuge in their dreams of home and their imaginations.

"Searching for the letters from the Civil?War, "became a passion," she said.

Burch said after reading the book, she began a search for similar letters wherever she could find them: archives, memoirs, genealogys website, etc.

She was delighted and surprised to find that instead of dozens of letters from soldiers describing their dreams, which Burch expected, she instead found hundreds.

"There are far more letters with dreams included than I would have imagined," Burch said.

That probably says something about the culture during the Civil War period, Burch said, when dreaming was accepted more as a viable form of communication.

As an example, she noted that she stumbled across a story from the Civil War about a Confederate soldier who had a dream indicating where a "Yankee" they were looking for was hidden nearby.

After the Confederate soldier told his commanding officer about his dream, the unit moved out to search the location. Lo and behold, they found the "Yankee" they were looking for exactly where the soldier's dream indicated he would be.

"Would someone believe that now?" Birch asked, about finding someone in a dream. "I don't know, but in the Civil War they did."

While it has been more than 150 years since the Civil War began, soldiers still dream of home.

"Dreaming of home is a universal safety net, a missing piece in our understanding and treatment of soldiers returning from today's battlefields," Burch wrote in an article on the website,

Charles Hagar, a chaplain with the 118th New York infantry during the Civil War, tried to provide spiritual counseling while dealing with the horrors of the war.

However, Burch said, he often wrote to his wife of his dreams of home.

Burch noted in one letter, Hagar wrote "...Coming up the stairs from the river this afternoon, I stumbled and fell up the stairs. Some of the surgeons' wives laughing said, 'Chaplain that is a sign that you will dream of your sweet-heart tonight.' I put my hand on my heart, saying 'O ladies, I have dreamed of her every night for a week past.'"

Burch, a staff member with Creative Healing Connections' arts retreats for women veterans and women surviving chronic illness, read two dreams in letters from Civil War soldiers in a workshop for veterans in 2009.

Burch said when she looked up from reading both, a young woman who had returned from Iraq, said with tears in her eyes, "I thought I was the only person who dreamed of home in the middle of a nightmare."

Burch said there are so many letters to chose from, she has to stop and figure out what she will use soon. She plans on sending a proposal into her publisher in the near future.

"Our culture is not so far removed from the Civil?War battlefield that we cannot reclaim the power of dreaming as a vital part of healing for the soldier returning home from a physical nightmare," she wrote.

For more information about Burch, visit her website at



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