Les Miserables, the American Civil War, and Reading in Camp or Home

Part of a Series

So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation which, in the midst of civilization, artificially creates a hell on earth, and complicates with human fatality a destiny that is divine; so long as the three problems of the century—the degradation of man by the exploitation of his labor, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the atrophy of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long, as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a still broader point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, there shall be a need for books such as this. —Hauteville House, 1862[i]

This opening note appeared in the pages of Les Miserables, a reasoning from the author’s desk in his private home. The thousands of words that Victor Hugo penned over many years came into publication in 1862 and made an international literary sensation. Written and published in French, translators rushed to prepare the novel for an English-reading audience. The story of Les Miserables’s translation in America and its reception in the North and the Confederacy is layered with propaganda and social choices. Ultimately, whichever translated version arrived in home or camp of Civil War America, the story had a profound impact and prompted readers to reflect on the type of society they longed for.

Les Miserables had been written and published in titled volumes—Fantine, Cosette, Marius, Saint-Denis, and Jean Valjean. Charles E. Wilbour prepared the first authorized American translation. When the first announcement appeared on June 7, 1862, in the New York Times, readers were assured that the translations of the second and third volumes were already underway. The first volume, Fantine, could be obtained in two editions: a paperback version for 50 cents or with “superior paper, [and] elegant cloth binding” for one dollar.[ii] The authorized British translation appeared for sale in London by October 1862. Then, a Confederate publisher entered the scene. Between 1863-1864, West and Johnston publishers in Richmond, Virginia, presented their own translation and version which scholars call the “Richmond translation.”[iii] All three English translations had errors and difficulties which multi-lingual readers and scholars discover and consider.

The Richmond Translation is noteworthy for what it included and omitted. First appearing in May 1863, the southerners claimed that their version would be an improvement over Wilbour’s. The southern publication included some editorial preface that claimed “[Wilbour’s] although in the main spirited and faithful, is disfigured by numerous errors and misapprehensions of peculiar French idioms, some of them even of a ludicrous nature.” The editors then revealed some peculiar sectional differences that they sought to correct for their version. “Several long, and…rather rambling disquisitions…exclusively intended for the French readers of the book…. A few scattered sentences, reflecting on slavery—which the author, with strange inconsistency has thought fit to introduce into a work written mainly to denounce the European systems of labor as gigantic instruments of tyranny and oppression—it has also been deemed advisable to strike out…the absence of a few antislavery paragraphs will hardly be complained of by Southern readers.”[iv] Through some omissions and some word changes, the Richmond Translation softened or hid Hugo’s comments on racial slavery. White southern readers could read through the pages and be confronted with the evils of European society while insulated from the accusing moral barbs toward the system of slavery in the United States and the Confederacy. Not all southerners appreciated the omissions, and some reviewers publicly complained about the alterations; one pitied “M. Hugo, the abolitionist” but argued “what has that to do with his writings?”[v] There was a need for a “book such as this” in American society—North and South—but part of the convictions of the story were intentionally blunted in the Richmond version which was mostly widely read in the Confederacy. Reflecting on the popularity of the novel during the Civil War years and the Richmond translation, a board secretary of the Virginia Historical Association noted, “few perfect copies were left after 1863. They were read to pieces by the soldiers.”[vi]

North and South widely advertised the French novel and the translated volumes as they became available. For example, on June 21, 1862, The New York Times printed a third-of-a-column of quoted reviews for the book. A notable review from the “Paris Correspondence of the New York Evening Post” claimed: “No book has ever been so devoured by the public since ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ Edition after edition disappears like snow-flakes on the water. It is the great sensation of the day in literary circles, and I do not wonder at all, for it combines all the elements that would naturally excite enthusiasm and stir the souls of readers of all classes to their very depths.”[vii] A couple of months later, the Bangor Daily Whig and Courier announced the available of volume Saint Denis, remarking “all we can say is they are extensively read in this country, and the publishers must be coining money.”[viii]

Some of the reviews for Les Miserables in the June 21, 1862 edition of the New York Times.

In Union states and camps, Les Miserables provoked commentary from common readers. A 72-year-old civilian woman in Massachusetts wrote: “It is a book that must be read.”[ix] Soldiers and officers often read the novel during the winter months or other times when not actively campaigning. Some read it lying in hospitals, and at least one known copy existed among the Union prisoners held at Andersonville, Georgia.[x] An officer in an Ohio cavalry regiment noted in his diary on May 9, 1863: “Read considerably in ‘Les Miserables.’ Reviewed ‘Fantine.’ Never read a book which contained so much truth and sense on every page.”[xi] An infantryman from Massachusetts read four volumes of the book in five days, calling it “grand and beautiful.”[xii] A volunteer from Iowa used the novel as an escape during a winter in Texas (1863-1864); he wrote, “I put on all my clothes including mittens and a cap and rolled myself in my blankets and read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, the most wonderful of all novels.”[xiii] In perhaps a scene that Victor Hugo would have approved as a step toward equalities, William Wheeler, an officer from the 13th New York Independent Battery, used the novel to teach some of his men how to read and to show them that more existed in life than “card playing or whiskey drinking.”[xiv] Other diary notes and anecdotes suggest that soldiers may have formed clubs to read or discuss the novel.

At least one commanding officer became so engrossed with the novel that “he apologized for his shabby appearance by saying that he had become interested in a foolish novel.” A literary discussion started at headquarters when “Colonel Scribner expressed great admiration for the characters Jean Val Jean and Javort [Javert], when the General confessed to a very decided anxiety to have Javort’s neck twisted.”[xv]

Southern readers also had strong feelings about Hugo’s characters. Diarist Mary Chesnut enjoyed “frantically literary” conversation in December 1863 after purchasing the volume Saint Denis.[xvi] She reserved her sharp commentary for the final volume, though. On March 8, 1864, Chesnut noted: “Read ‘Jean Val Jean.’ What a beastly little ingrate is Cosette. Genius can make a hero of a man who has dragged himself through all the sewers of Paris.”[xvii] Confederate staff officer Henry K. Douglas read the novel while lying wounded in the Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He judged the book as “just what I wanted in that place—plenty of reading for plenty of time, full of war and of love, full of wit, wisdom, everything; never before nor since have I ever enjoyed a book so much.”[xviii] Sandie Pendleton, another Confederate staff officer, also read Les Miserables while lying in bed, sick with dysentery during the late spring of 1863. Pendleton wanted to be a minister after the war and his reflections were more sober. “One of the most remarkable productions I ever met, with more intellect and thorough acquaintance with human passion in its every phase, and the whole permeated by an intense sense of injustice of society rising almost to hatred. It is one grand Philippic and made me again vow to be a preacher.”[xix]

Oral tradition claims that Confederate soldiers strolled into Richmond bookstores, asking for “Lee’s Miserables faintin’.”[xx] The story takes a literal English reading of the title and Fantine’s name, but—whether apocryphal or not—this illustrates the popularity of the book and that it was in the common soldiers realm of interest. In a journal essay, Professor Vanessa Steinroetter suggests that Confederate soldiers particularly identified with Jean Valjean.[xxi] They saw his struggles and hardships and related. Southern author John E. Cooke later used comparisons between the down-trodden in Les Miserables and Confederate soldiers in the Petersburg trenches. LaSalle Pickett, wife of General George Pickett, made similar comparisons in her post-war writings.

Primary sources and newspaper advertising point to Les Miserables as one of the most-popular literary novels on both sides of the battlefield during the American Civil War. It prompted reflection on the themes that Hugo emphasized, though sometimes translators or editors blunted those ideas for their audience. Soldiers and civilians may not have seen the slums of Paris or the street barricades in 1832, but around them scenes unfolded that they could see parallels in the story and their own society. For some the novel provided escapism and entertainment. For others, some of the topics were profoundly troubling. A soldier might look up from his reading in a military camp and see a woman forced to prostitution, a refugee war orphan, the call to arms before an attack, or the effects of battle on the body or mind. In many ways, Les Miserables held up a mirror to American society and the American Civil War, asking readers to consider and reconsider their world and society.


[i] Victor Hugo, unabridged translation by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, Les Miserables (New York: New American Library/Signet Classics, 1987), introduction page.

[ii] Olin H. Moore, “Some Translations of Les Miserables” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 74, No. 3 (March 1959). Page 240. (Accessed through Jstor)

[iii] Ibid., Page 240.

[iv] Ibid., Pages 244-245.

[v] Vanessa Steinroetter, “Soldiers, Readers, and the Reception of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables in Civil War America,” in Reception: Texts, Readers, Audiences, History, Vol. 8 (2016). Page 12. (Accessed through Jstor).

[vi] Olin H. Moore, “Some Translations of Les Miserables” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 74, No. 3 (March 1959). Page 240. (Accessed through Jstor)

[vii] The New York Times, “New Publications,” June 21, 1862, Page 5. (Accessed through Newspapers.com)

[viii] Bangor Daily Whig and Courier, “New Publications,” September 16, 1862, Page 2. (Accessed through Newspapers.com

[ix] Vanessa Steinroetter, “Soldiers, Readers, and the Reception of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables in Civil War America,” in Reception: Texts, Readers, Audiences, History, Vol. 8 (2016). Page 6. (Accessed through Jstor).

[x] Ibid., Page 6.

[xi] Ibid., Page 6.

[xii] Ibid., Page 15.

[xiii] Ibid., Page 15.

[xiv] Ibid., Page 15.

[xv] Ibid., Page 18.

[xvi] Mary Chesnut, edited by C.V. Woodward, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War (Yale University Press, 1981). Page 504.

[xvii] Ibid., 579

[xviii] Henry Kyd Douglas, I Rode With Stonewall (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1968). Page 257.

[xix] W. G. Bean, Sandie Pendleton: Stonewall’s Man (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1959). Page 129-130.

[xx] Jeanne Rosselet, “First Reactions to Les Mierables in the United States” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 67, No. 1 (January 1952). Page 43.

[xxi] Vanessa Steinroetter, “Soldiers, Readers, and the Reception of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables in Civil War America,” in Reception: Texts, Readers, Audiences, History, Vol. 8 (2016). (Accessed through Jstor).

6 Responses to Les Miserables, the American Civil War, and Reading in Camp or Home

  1. How interesting that a multi-volume novel produced by a French author would be so welcomed in the midst of the confusion of the Civil War. Not just in parlors North and South, but also in the field. Thank you for a fascinating article.

  2. So interesting! I missed this post before and am now reading it, along with your newest post. I never knew the novel had the impact here that it did during the Civil War. Some great history to add to my class discussions of the Civil War! Thanks for bringing in a focus on the literature of the day!

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