Monday, March 24, 2014

The Outcome of a Maimed Consciousness

On July 1, 1863, Sarah Garland Emery of Canterbury, New Hampshire, had a morbid dream. Her husband, Charles, was off at the front, serving with the 12th New Hampshire Infantry. Although she did not know it, the Battle of Gettysburg was about to begin and that battle was about to claim the life of one of her husband’s closest friends, Lieutenant Henry French. Sarah Emery remembered,

It was the night before the battle of Gettysburg, a night never to be forgotten by me, that I had the strange dream, or vision, for it did not seem like a dream, that told me plainer than tongue or pen, and as unmistakably as my own eyes, the fate that awaited my husband and his brother comrade, Lieutenant French. They were . . . schoolmates together, and enlisted from the same neighborhood. I was then stopping here in London [N. H.] with my own folks, and though expecting from newspaper reports that a battle would be fought in a few days, did not know that the two great armies were rapidly concentrating at Gettysburg, and that advanced forces were already engaged on that historic field. I therefore retired that night with nothing more than usual to worry or excite me.

Sometime during the night I heard, as I thought, three or four plain and distinct raps on the outside of the front door. Changing my first impulse to arouse the other inmates of the house, I decided not to disturb them, as they gave no sound of being awake, but to answer the summons myself. Hastily dressing, I took the lamp I had lighted in my hand, and descending the front stairs unlocked and opened the door.

There, sad, solemn, and silent, but in perfect lifelike form, countenance, and attitude, and in full dress uniform, stood Lieut. Henry French!

I spoke and extended my hand, but without heeding either, he passed in by me through the hallway into the sitting-room, the door of which he opened and closed after him. For the first time a feeling of dread chilled through my veins, and I hesitated to follow. But something stronger than my fears impelled me forward, and opening the door just closed, I entered the room after him.

Here, in the middle of the room, I saw two coffins, both open and empty, as I first thought, but upon approaching nearer I noticed that only one was empty, while the other held what now seemed the pale face and lifeless form of him who but a minute before stood and moved in life and strength before me. As I gazed upon the empty coffin, a small stream of blood ran out of the foot of it, and fell upon the floor, and something seemed to say: ‘This is for Charles who, too, must give his life’s blood for his country, but his time has not come yet.’

When Sarah Emery awoke the next morning, she confessed, “I lay for a long time, scarcely daring to believe that I was once more on the conscious side of the dividing line.” A few days later, as news of the Battle of Gettysburg spread through town, elements of her unusual dream came true. A neighbor came by and informed her that Lieutenant French had indeed been killed. Although Sarah Emery worried about the second coffin she had seen in her dream, she “thought [that] my husband was all right, because his name was not in the list of killed or wounded. A day or two later and a letter from his own hand left no longer room for doubt that he had passed through the terrible carnage unscathed.”

Naturally, the dream continued to trouble her. Every day, Mrs. Emery fretted over the vision of the second coffin, and as the days of July passed, her family wondered why she continued to appear sad and remote. Emery remembered, “My husband was alive and well, but the empty coffin was constantly before me, and there was but little more doubt in my mind for whom it remained open, than there was whom I saw in the other one.”

After Gettysburg, the 12th New Hampshire received a transfer to Point Lookout, Maryland, where, for several months, Lieutenant Charles Emery and his comrades guarded Confederate prisoners. In April 1864, the 12th New Hampshire joined the 18th Corps and soon it participated in Benjamin Butler’s Bermuda Hundred Campaign. Then, in late May, it rejoined the Army of the Potomac just in time for the Battle of Cold Harbor. In the infamous frontal assault on June 3, 1864, the 12th New Hampshire lost 177 officers and men. As the news of the regiment’s redeployment reached friends and family back home, Sarah Emery worried that the prophesy was about to come true. She continued:

I now seemed to anticipate afresh that the sad end, so long delayed, was soon to come; and a nervous feeling of impending danger too plainly told me that the worst was about to be realized. A few days later and I received another and the last letter ever written by him for whose safe return I had so long waited and prayed in vain. It was written on the night and in the early morning before the terrible charge of Cold Harbor, June 3, 1864.

He had commenced the letter on the evening of the second, and wrote that the morrow would again bring carnage and death into the ranks of the Twelfth, and that he felt that he should not again be among the lucky few who would escape unharmed. About midnight he wrote again, saying he was sure he should fall, but whether he should be killed on the field or receive his mortal wound he could not tell. Toward morning, and but a short time before the charge, he finished the letter, stating that in answer to his prayers he had then the assurance that although the bitter cup must be drunk for the redemption of his country, as his great Captain had drunk his for the redemption of the world, yet he should not be killed outright, but should live to see me once more at least before he died.

This was enough, for I knew his presentiment must prove true, and with a hasty preparation I immediately started for Washington and found my husband there in one of the large hospitals, prostrate and weak from the nervous shock and loss of blood from two severe wounds, one in his left arm and the other in his right thigh.

Now followed days and nights of watching and praying, while life and death seemed balancing in the scales, until at last the physicians spoke encouragingly, and thought the danger well nigh passed. His arm had been taken off, and the stump was healing so well that he, too, was beginning to entertain strong hopes of final recovery and the enjoyment of many happy days with me in our pleasant cottage home.

We had talked over our trials in the past and our hopes for the future; he had told me of the battles he had been in, and of his narrow escapes; and several times spoke of the great battle of Gettysburg, and the death of Lieutenant French, and of how he had saved the national colors of his regiment from capture in that battle. When told that I had never before heard anything about his saving the flag, he seemed surprised, and wondered that Adjutant Heath, who went, you know, from the same town, had never written home about it.

He then related to me briefly the circumstances, and said: ‘If I should not live to get home, Heath, I have no doubt, will make known the facts about it and see that full justice is done me.’

He also talked to me freely all about the strange premonition he had the night before he was wounded, how deeply it impressed him, and how glad and thankful he was and ought to be that he was not killed, like so many of the brave boys around him, but was still alive with the chances daily increasing of his seeing his native hills once more, and there living to enjoy the blessings of peace which he had given his own blood and limbs to secure.

During all this time, nearly two months, I said nothing of my own warning more than a year before, and, although it was almost constantly in my mind, I carefully avoided saying or doing anything to awaken in his mind a suspicion that I did not share with him his often expressed and most sanguine hopes of his final recovery.

And, to tell the fact, he had lived so long and improved so much, that, at times, the desire to have it so was so strong, I thought I could see a silver lining to the dark cloud of fear and doubt that had for many months hung over me; but it would soon disappear and leave a still deeper shade of gloom, that no ray of hope could penetrate or dispel. But the days and nights of anxious waiting and watching were at last nearly numbered, and the final, fatal hour was fast approaching. As well and hopeful as usual, my husband had closed his eyes in peaceful, quiet rest; but something of the same dread feeling of impending danger that I had felt once or twice before, as you will remember, came over me, and I could not sleep.

Soon I was summoned to his bedside, and I knew, even before I could get there, that the dread messenger had come. I found him, slowly but surely, bleeding to death! Secondary hemorrhage from his wound in the groin, caused by the sloughing open of one of the femoral arteries, had broken out, and there was no power in medical skill to stop it.

Just as he breathed his last, a stream of blood ran from off the foot of his bed upon the floor, just as I had seen it run out the foot of the empty coffin, and the realization of my vision was then and there sadly and solemnly consummated.

A shrewd historian might dismiss this account as sanctimonious rubbish, but I’m not so skeptical of it. Psychologist James Sully once explained dreams as revelations, or as he put it, “the outcome of a maimed consciousness.” Oddly enough, Sully explained dreams as an attachment to humankind’s primordial past—which really doesn’t fit here—but he made it clear that dreams are revelations of truths that the conscious mind refuses to accept. In Sarah Emery’s case, she refused to accept the possibility that her husband could die in the war. Thus, her 1863 dream was the response of her subconscious mind; it prepared her for the possibility of his death. Her dream did not predict the future so much as it revealed it, exactly as Sully explained. In any case, her dream happened. It was a real event and we should not doubt the veracity of her account.
More to the point: what a wild window into the human mind! To me, Sarah Emery’s story suggests that, in war, dreams are far more illuminating—and far more didactic—than in times of peace. This dream maimed her consciousness in such a way that she never forgot it.

(Lt. Charles Sargent Emery, Co. F, 12th N.H.V.)

(Charles and Sarah Emery are buried here, in Merrimack County, N. H.)


  1. Tim,

    I'm a Granite Stater and a member of the modern day 5th New Hampshire living history group. I must ask where did you come across this piece? Enjoyed it immensely.

    Best regards,
    Dave M.

  2. Thanks, David! Believe it or not, this account is easy to track down. It comes from Asa Bartlett's History of the Twelfth Regiment, pp. 346-49. It is in a section entitled, "Presentiments and Visions."