Here’s a new take on “Lee’s Miserables.”
Recall that Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables appeared in print in 1862 and became a favorite in Lee’s army. After its translation and publication by a Richmond firm, a “soldier edition” was distributed throughout the army in the winter of 1863-64, printed on “Confederate ‘sheep’s wool paper,’” according to Maj. Robert Stiles.
“Everywhere, you might see the gaunt figures in their tattered jackets bending over the dingy pamphlets—‘Fantine,’ ‘Cosette,’ or ‘Marius,’ or ‘St. Denis,’” remembered John Esten Cooke. “The soldiers, little familiar with the Gallic pronunciation, called the book ‘Lee’s Miserables!’”
The section of Hugo’s novel titled Fantine carried particular resonance. Prof. Tracy Power tells the story in his book, Lee’s Miserables (1998).
“I want a copy of that book about Gen. Lee’s poor, miserable soldiers faintin’,” a Richmond lady was heard to remark in West & Johnston’s book store. “Oh! Ah! Yes! I know what it is now you mean Les Miserables. Fantine by Victor Hugo,” came the owner’s reply. “No, I don’t,” said she. “I know nothing and care nothing about Lays Meeserarbuls. I want Lee’s Miserables faintin’.”
The lady left without the book.
Well, the other day at the Atlanta History Center I chanced upon a western-theater variant of the story.
Charles H. Smith was an attorney in Rome, Georgia, as the war broke out. When Lincoln issued his proclamation of April 15, 1861, calling upon the rebellious “combinations….to disperse, and retire peaceably to their respective abodes, within twenty days,” Smith wrote a funny response printed in the local papers. Signing himself “Bill Arp,” he addressed the Northern president.
We received your proklamation, and as you have put us on very short notis, a few of us boys have conkluded to write you, and ax for a little more time. The fact is, we are most obleeged to have a few more days, for the way things are happening, it is utterly onpossible for us to disperse in twenty days….I tried my darndest yisterday to disperse and retire, but it was not go.
“Bill Arp” continued to write columns during the war, and collected them in several postwar books, including Bill Arp’s Peace Papers (New York, 1873)—the one I saw recently.
Now, the western-theater variant:
Sum frog-eatin Frenchman hav writ a book and kalled it, “Lee’s Miserbels,” or sum other sich name, which I spose kontain the misfortunes of poor refugees in the wake of the Virginny army. Genrul Hood have also got a few miserbels in the suberbs of his fitin ground.
So there you go, Eastern Theater-centrists! You all have your “Lee’s Miserables.” Out here in the western theater, we now have our “Hood’s Miserbels”!