Lincoln took a keen interest in his dream life. He was fascinated by the meaning of individual dreams and by the whole experience of dreaming. Unfortunately for us, he said very little about this in his own letters. Almost everything we know comes from his “recollected words,” that is, words written down by other people, sometimes decades after his death.
Recollected words vary tremendously in their reliability. We can trust some of them, but we have to approach this second- or thirdhand evidence cautiously. It’s easy to be enticed, and misled, by the embellishments and fictions produced by some of his well-meaning friends and acquaintances.
The least reliable of Lincoln’s friends and acquaintances weren’t trying to mislead us. They wanted to convey some basic Lincoln trait or belief. Embroidering the facts seemed a justifiable way of bringing home an essential truth. Making the story more dramatic might even make the storyteller more memorable — someone who stayed close to Lincoln’s side, someone he whispered things to.
To separate the authentic from the inauthentic in Lincoln’s dream life, we must start with what he wrote down himself: a brief 1863 letter to his wife Mary, who was in Philadelphia with their 10-year-old son Tad. In two pithy sentences he gives us a tantalizing glimpse of what his dreams meant to him. “Think you better put ‘Tad’s’ pistol away,” he wrote. “I had an ugly dream about him.”
There’s no telling what Lincoln dreamt about Tad and his pistol, but he feared the dream portended something bad. This dream was an omen — at least enough of an omen to make Lincoln try to alter Tad’s usual routine with his toy. (This toy was apparently a real pistol, but supplied only with caps, not cartridges or powder.)
We find Lincoln’s belief in the premonitory power of dreams confirmed by a second well-attested case. Strikingly, he told the members of his cabinet about this dream on the morning of his assassination, April 14, 1865. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wrote about it in his diary three days later, and Frederick Seward, sitting in on the meeting in place of his father William Seward, the Secretary of State, wrote about it independently, though only decades later.
According to Welles, Lincoln told the cabinet members he’d dreamt the night before that he was moving across some body of water in a “singular, indescribable vessel,” and “moving with great rapidity.” That’s all Welles wrote down immediately. Seven years later, in a published article, he claimed that Lincoln had spoken of the vessel’s destination: “a dark and indefinite shore.” That converted the dream into a virtual premonition of his death.
On the morning of April 14, according to Welles’s initial diary entry, Lincoln did add another telling detail — not about the dream’s content, but about its frequency. He said he’d had the same dream many times before, not randomly, but before “nearly every great and important event of the War,” including, among others, “Sumter, Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, Stone River, Vicksburg, and Wilmington.” (Some doubter in the room must have wondered, “how come we’ve never heard about this dream before?”) At first the speeding vessel was not on a one-way voyage to the land of the dead; it was a virtual mail boat, delivering hot news that Lincoln was desperate to get.
The phenomenal correlation between the dream and a string of major events proved to the president’s satisfaction that some big story was about to break again. It wouldn’t necessarily be good news — “Sumter” showed the news could be bad — but Lincoln told the cabinet he was betting on good tidings: a surrender by Confederate General Joe Johnston, still squaring off with Sherman in North Carolina.
Lincoln thus reiterated on the day of his assassination the same conviction he’d expressed in 1863 on the subject of Tad’s pistol. Dreams possessed at least some predictive capacity. They weren’t actual revelations of the future, but they gave one a sense, however murky, of what might come to pass.
Lincoln was showing that he subscribed to what Thomas Campbell, in an 1803 poem, had said: “coming events cast their shadows before.” Currier and Ives used that phrase as the subtitle of an 1864 election-campaign print commenting on McClellan’s possible victory over Lincoln in the upcoming presidential election: “Abraham’s Dream: Coming Events Cast Their Shadows Before.”
The print depicts an agitated Lincoln experiencing a nightmare: he’s being kicked out of the White House by Columbia, ominously waving the severed head of a black man at him, as a victorious McClellan ascends the steps. (Is the sleeping Lincoln worrying that the Emancipation Proclamation has turned northern white voters against him, and that he’s also to blame for post-proclamation white violence against blacks?)
The print reminds us that in his actual dreaming there were no reported nightmares. We could call the pistol and vessel cases “anxiety” dreams — he frets about what might happen with Tad’s gun, and he’s itching for news as the vessel takes its sweet time (Lincoln can still easily conjure up in his sleep the pre-telegraphic era of his young adulthood).
Even the most likely candidate for a nightmare — the famous, but inauthentic, “dead president in the White House” dream peddled by Lincoln’s friend Ward Hill Lamon in the 1880s — turns out to be an anxiety dream at most. (It was published in book form in 1895.) Lamon attributes to Lincoln a dream in which he sees the corpse of an assassinated president on exhibit in the East Room of the White House. A crowd has assembled to view the body, and many are weeping.
All the sobbing finally wakes Lincoln up, and a few days later he supposedly tells a small group at the White House, including his wife and Lamon, “I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.” According to Lamon, Lincoln rejected any premonitory significance for this dream. He didn’t take it as a sign of his own fate.
Lamon claimed in the 1880s to have reconstructed this dream from notes he made in 1865, but like many other reminiscences from his pen, it can’t stand scrutiny. The biggest reason to doubt his report is that no one in the “small group,” including Lamon, mentioned the dream after the assassination. There are also major internal contradictions in Lamon’s telling of the story.
But with the pistol and vessel dreams in mind, we can see that Lamon may have been trying to build his fiction atop the basic truth of Lincoln’s dream life. Lincoln’s fully confirmed dreams were not dreams of pleasure or horror. They bothered him, but didn’t traumatize or even unsettle him.
Lamon’s dead-president dream follows suit in depicting Lincoln as slightly affected, but hardly distraught. Where Lamon’s concoction departs from the authentic dreams is in having Lincoln pooh-pooh its predictive potential. “In this dream,” Lamon has the president saying, “it was not me but some other fellow that was killed…. your apprehension of harm to me from some hidden enemy is downright foolishness.”
Don and Virginia Fehrenbacher, the indispensable authorities on Lincoln’s “recollected words,” mention two other “dreams” derived from secondhand sources, but neither one alters the basic anxiety-dream pattern. The first has good provenance — Lincoln’s secretary John Hay — but it sounds a lot like a Lincoln joke set arbitrarily inside a “dream.” Lincoln says he dreamt he was in a group of people, one of whom thought he was “very common-looking,” to which he replied, “common-looking people are the best in the world; that is the reason the Lord makes so many of them.”
The second is a touching story about dreaming recollected by a single fragile source. In 1862 Lincoln supposedly told Le Grand B. Cannon, an army colonel at Ft. Monroe, that when dreaming (repeatedly) of his recently lost son Willie, he felt “a sweet communion with him,” while remaining aware within the dream state that this was “not a reality.”
That’s a fascinating comment on what it feels like to be inside a dream, and an endearing tale about Lincoln’s longing for Willie. But in the context of Cannon’s own obvious longing to be close to Lincoln, one has to doubt the story’s veracity. “He had given me a sacred confidence,” Cannon concludes. And he’d given it only to him: no one else was around to hear Lincoln’s words, or to witness their supposed shared tears, and Lincoln “never alluded to this incident afterward.”
Cannon’s account was published more than 30 years after Lincoln’s alleged comment. Cannon is so determined in the 1890s to establish his own “sweet communion” with the long departed Lincoln that he undermines his story’s credibility.
The “sweet communion” remark about Willie is one of my favorite Lincoln statements, and I hate to give it up. Maybe Lincoln did say it. But my wishing he said it doesn’t make it so. I’ll keep it instead as a beautiful expression of Cannon’s sympathy for Lincoln in his fatherly distress, and of his desire to stay close to his hero in memory.