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Daydreams and Nightmares

A Virginia Family Faces Secession and War
Brent Tarter

BUY Cloth · 160 pp. · 6 × 8 · ISBN 9780813937090 · $24.95 · Apr 2015
BUY Ebook · 160 pp. · ISBN 9780813937106 · $24.95 · Apr 2015
BUY Paper · 160 pp. · 6 × 8 · ISBN 9780813939841 · $18.95 · Mar 2017

The decision of the eventual Confederate states to secede from the Union set in motion perhaps the most dramatic chapter in American history, and one that has typically been told on a grand scale. In Daydreams and Nightmares, however, historian Brent Tarter shares the story of one Virginia family who found themselves in the middle of the secession debate and saw their world torn apart as the states chose sides and went to war.

George Berlin was elected to serve as a delegate to the Virginia Convention of 1861 as an opponent of secession, but he ultimately changed his vote. Later, when defending his decision in a speech in his hometown of Buckhannon, Upshur County, he had to flee for his safety as Union soldiers arrived. Berlin and his wife, Susan Holt Berlin, were separated for extended periods--both during the convention and, later, during the early years of the Civil War. The letters they exchanged tell a harrowing story of uncertainty and bring to life for the modern reader an extended family that encompassed both Confederate and Union sympathizers.

This is in part a love story. It is also a story about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. Although unique in its vividly evoked details, the Berlins’ story is representative of the drama endured by millions of Americans. Composed during the nightmare of civil war, the Berlins’ remarkably articulate letters express the dreams of reunion and a secure future felt throughout the entire, severed nation. In this intimate, evocative, and often heartbreaking family story, we see up close the personal costs of our larger national history.

A Nation Divided: Studies in the Civil War


Beautifully and sensitively written, Daydreams and Nightmares takes on a subject of great importance—secession—and does so in a way that foregrounds the enormous personal and political dilemmas that surrounded Virginians’ eventual turn to the Confederacy. It is a story of the personal, private side of the secession crisis—a perspective largely overlooked in the traditional accounts that dominate library shelves.

Amy Murrell Taylor, University of Kentucky, author of The Divided Family in Civil War America

Tarter has focused on a minor player in the great drama that broke up the Union and tore the state of Virginia apart. But this minor player was situated on the knife-edge of both fractures, and the substantial surviving correspondence between him and his wife breathes life into an interval of exquisite tension.

Daniel W. Crofts, The College of New Jersey, author of Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis

Brent Tarter has given us a sad and very human tale of war, separation, and anxiety, followed by an all-too-brief period of happier times.... I suspect readers will feel a sincere debt of gratitude to the skilled historian who has brought their moving story to light.

Civil War Book Review

"This compact book is ideal for use in undergraduate courses seeking to examine the process of and the personal consequences of secession for noncombatants in a border state."

Ken Fones-Wolf, West Virginia University · West Virginia History

In this gracefully written book, Brent Tarter offers a fresh perspective on the Civil War that brings to life how political events reverberated unpredictably in individual lives.... With restraint he deftly fills in gaps in the letters with discussions of the economic, political, and religious context through which the Berlins moved. The result is a concise, lively, and deeply humane portrait of an exceptional but revealing experience of conflict.

Journal of Southern History

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