“Not Afraid”: Thinking About Literature The Soldiers Read

Some of us at ECW have a yearly tradition of reading classic literature from the 19th Century during the holiday season. For many, Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol is a beloved classic. I appreciate Dickens, his tale of Scrooge, and the old miser’s journey to appreciating the important things in life, but my favorite Christmas literature was written by Victor Hugo.

It’s a section from Les Miserables which was published in 1862. It’s a book that became rather popular during the Civil War period in America, and it’s easy to remember the soldiers and officers reading it in the trenches at Petersburg. Maybe the section about Christmas touched them in a special way, too.

Before you join the chorus of family members telling me that’s such a dark book that it shouldn’t be read during the holidays… Let me explain. Yes, Les Miserables has some very dark chapters, much tragedy, and even some pretty awful street battles. However, there is also a lot of hope and true love. If there was no darkness in the tale, the forgiveness, redemption, and selflessness could not shine so brightly. There would be no contrast.

Les Miserables doesn’t dampen my Christmas spirit, but rather it deepens my thoughts, emotions, compassion, and desire to serve. The dark parts of the story – like the tragedy of Civil War history – serves to better illuminate the shining moments of courage and humanity. I think sometimes we get caught-up in our relatively secure worlds and forget that there are people in our towns – maybe even at our doorsteps – that need help. Also, it can be important to remember that within the joys of Christmas, there may be family members or friends who are going through a difficult time and need a gentle love, not a blaring “Merry Christmas.”

The original 1862 illustration of Cosette sweeping the doorstep before she went to fetch the water.

No, I don’t read the entire book in December. Just the section about Christmas, found in Cosette, book three. (Spoilers ahead; proceed with caution.)

Jean Valjean is again on the run from the police, and this time he carries a burden of a promise. A promise made to a dying mother to find her child. It’s Christmas Eve when Valjean approaches the small village where the little orphaned girl is supposed to be staying with an innkeeper’s family. Unfortunately, the innkeeper and his wife badly mistreat the girl, who’s named Cosette, and they finally force her to get a bucket of water from the spring in the dark woods. She starts into the cold snowy night, then struggles back with her heavy bucket. There, Valjean finds her, takes the bucket, holds her hand, and walks back to the inn with her…and for the first time in her life, she was not afraid. Valjean buys her a beautiful doll as a holiday gift, then negotiates for Cosette’s freedom – eventually paying an enormous sum to the bribe-able innkeeper. And on Christmas Day the redeemed convict and orphaned girl leave together and begin their life as father and daughter.

Snug and cozy on the couch, I like to read a few chapters every day leading up to Christmas. Les Miserable is an old book. Published in 1862 and translated from French to English during the American Civil War years, it was some of the latest reading from Europe. In the Christmas scene, themes of purchased redemption, freedom, and selfless love stand strong. Themes that we also see in Civil War history – and yet we would not have seen those strong, vivid themes in 1860’s America if we had not had the darkness of war.

Interior of a replica soldier hut on the ground of the White Oak Museum & Stafford Research Center.

During the Civil War, soldiers and civilians alike toiled up an invisible slope of difficulties, hauling the burden of convictions, tragedy, and consequences. For some individuals, a moment of epiphany arrived as they came to understand larger issues that would be determined by the conflict. For some, slavery’s chains would literally be broken and decades of bondage’s darkness would end with freedom’s dawn brought through the war. With these thoughts in mind, I offer one of the powerful sections from Les Miserables Christmas.

These same words were read in Civil War hospitals, in trenches, around camp fires, by lamplight, in comfortable homes, and in cold tents. Think of the thoughts it might have inspired and how these same literary words can re-inspire us today:

She [Cosette] went a dozen steps this way, but the bucket was full, it was heavy, she had to rest it on the ground. She caught her breath an instant, then grasped the handle again, and walked on, this time a little longer. But she had to stop again. After resting a few seconds, she started on. She walked bending forward, her head down, like an old woman; the weight of the bucket strained and stiffened her thin arms. The iron handle was numbing and freezing her little wet hands; from time to time she had to stop, and every time she stopped, the cold water that sloshed out of the bucket splashed onto her bare knees. This took place in the deep woods, at night, in the winter, far from all human sight; she was a child of eight. At that moment only the Eternal Father saw this sad thing.

And undoubtedly her mother, alas!

For there are things that open the eyes of the dead in their grave.

Her breath came as a kind of painful gasp; sobs choked her, but she did not dare weep, so great was her fear….

However, she could not make much headway this way and was moving along very slowly. As hard as she tried to shorten her resting spells, and to walk as far as possible between them, she anxiously realized that it would take her more than an hour to return…at this rate, and that the [innkeeper’s wife] would beat her. This anguish added to her dismay at being alone in the woods at night. She was worn out and was not yet out of the forest. Reaching an old chestnut tree she knew, she made one last halt, longer  than the others, to rest up well, then she gathered all her strength, took up the bucket again, and began to walk on courageously. Meanwhile the poor little despairing thing could not help crying: “Oh my God! Oh my God!”

At that moment she suddenly felt that the weight of the bucket was gone. A hand, which seemed enormous to her, had just caught the handle, and was carrying it easily. She looked up. A large dark form, straight and erect, was walking beside her in the darkness. A man who had come up behind her and whom she had not heard. This man, without saying a word, had grasped the handle of the bucket she was carrying.

There are instincts for all the crises of life.

The child was not afraid.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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