You Dream Every Night That I Am Home

Letters from a young Civil War soldier to his wife in Eckley, a town in the anthracite coal fields of northeastern Pennsylvania

Non-Fiction - Historical
456 Pages
Reviewed on 08/27/2023
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    Book Review

Reviewed by Grant Leishman for Readers' Favorite

You Dream Every Night That I Am Home: Letters from a Young Civil War Soldier to his Wife in Eckley, a town in the anthracite coal fields of northern Pennsylvania by Melanie Akren-Dickson is a profoundly personal, meticulously researched, and documented record of a simple Civil War soldier called to duty in the conflict that split the fledgling nation of the United States. John Williamson was a newly married twenty-two-year-old who worked as a mule driver in the coal town of Eckley, Pennsylvania. He and his newly-minted wife, Hester, were expecting their first child when war was declared and John enlisted in Company K of the Pennsylvania 81st Infantry. The letters John would write home to his beloved Hester right up until the moment of his death in the Battle of Charles City Crossroads form the core of this beautiful book but the author has researched and also included many maps, photographs (now and then), plus details of the lives of many of those mentioned in the letters, into the narrative. The letters take us on John’s journey from the tiny town of Eckley to Washington DC, Alexandria, Virginia, and finally to the Virginian Peninsular where he was to meet his untimely fate. Along with John’s letters, the story gives us a feel for the life of a common soldier in one small part of that awful and bloody conflict.

You Dream Every Night That I Am Home is a history buff’s dream. By using John’s letters as the center of this story, the reader is transported into the mindset of an ordinary man just doing what he believed was his duty and doing it with pride and lack of complaint. I particularly appreciated that his correspondence with his wife was not of the flowery, romantic nature that one might expect in one of these war collections but was much more down-to-earth and grounded, relating to everyday happenings and seeking news from home, as well as passing on information about others from Eckley that would be of interest to his wife, family, and neighbors. The actual book itself is beautifully presented, full of clear and informative photos, from then and now, showing sights that John Williamson will have seen or passed on his journey, as well as a fantastic collection of maps, war memorial sites, plaques, and headstones relating to people John had met during his sojourn to war. What I was deeply impressed with was the author’s research and the summary of the lives of all the people John mentioned in his letters, as well as their offspring, locations, and circumstances after the war, assuming they’d survived. The depth of detail in this work is staggering and is of academic quality in my opinion, with numerous informative footnotes and an extensive bibliography. The author also gives a historical perspective to the actual battles and their participants, over and above what were often just passing comments, to his wife Hester in his letters. This is an engrossing, enlightening read that I can highly recommend.

Bruce Arrington

You Dream Every Night That I Am Home by Melanie Akren-Dickson is a nonfiction historical work about the Civil War era. It encapsulates the life of a young, newly married, and soon-to-be father caught in one of the most difficult periods of our nation's history. This work is an exhaustive accounting of John Williamson, his family, friends, and fellow soldiers during this period. It includes numerous pictures and maps describing, in great detail, the places and events mentioned in this book's heart, namely in the letters of young John to his new bride, Hester.

I enjoy history, but I become much more engaged when there is a connection between myself and someone I can relate to in some way. This book takes you on the journey of a young man who died too early in a terrible war that took so many lives. But instead of presenting facts that simply keep the reader at a distance, this is so different. It allows you to use your senses to smell the smoke, sink into the mud during the rain, and feel the chill of winter where the soldiers had to live. We sense the routines of everyday military life and the horrors that come with it. I knew John would die from the beginning because that was clearly stated upfront. However, through those letters, it felt like I could get to know him personally, root for him, and somehow wish he had survived the horrible war.

This book brings a personal touch to the Civil War, and instead of feeling distanced, it felt somehow more real and meaningful. I was able to gain a slight sense of loss that others experienced in full and painful ways. You Dream Every Night That I am Home by Melanie Akren-Dickson captures the breadth of some of the Civil War battles on a landscape scale and the personal hardships, dreams, and hopes of a Union soldier doomed to die. Highly recommended.

K.C. Finn

You Dream Every Night That I Am Home is a work of non-fiction in the historical subgenre that encompasses ‘Letters from a young Civil War soldier to his wife in Eckley, a town in the anthracite coal fields of northeastern Pennsylvania’. It is suitable for the general adult reading audience and was written by author Melanie Akren-Dickson. This well-penned and poignant narrative is based on actual letters discovered in family records, recounting the tragic tale of a young Civil War soldier, John Williamson, from Pennsylvania's anthracite coal fields. The title originates from one of John's heartfelt letters to his wife, Hester. Amid his life as a mule driver in the coal mine, John enlists with Company K of the Pennsylvania 81st Infantry in 1861, leaving behind his pregnant wife. Through John's letters, the book chronicles his journey from Pennsylvania to various locations, including training camps and battlefields.

Author Melanie Akren-Dickson uses a lot of love, talent, and empathy in bringing John's words to life, allowing readers to empathize with his emotions and aspirations whilst also crafting a profound experience that bridges the gap between history and personal stories. The inclusion of photographs and maps adds depth to the narrative, offering a visual connection to the places John experienced. The pacing, presentation, and craftsmanship involved in making this into a book is not just a portrayal of historical events, but a tribute to the resilience and sacrifices of individuals like John Williamson and the profound impact of their lives on subsequent generations. Overall, You Dream Every Night That I Am Home is a highly recommended read for history fans, but also those looking to connect deeply with the human experiences of past generations.