Les Miserables, the American Civil War, and Women “When It All Went Wrong”

Part of a Series

There was a time when men were kind

When their voices were soft

And their words inviting

There was a time when love was blind

And the world was a song

And the song was exciting

There was a time

Then it all went wrong.[i]

In the musical version of Les Miserables, one of the best-known songs is “I Dreamed A Dream” sung by the character Fantine as she finds herself on the streets torn between her hopes of the past and a dark, fallen future. The young woman had been abandoned by a lover and had borne his child. Struggling as a single mother, she had decided to leave the little girl with an innkeeper’s wife, thinking it would be a safer place for her. Alone, Fantine found work in a factory until an altercation with coworkers cost her job. Turned out on the streets, Fantine tried to find other work and sold her few possessions, her hair, and eventually several of her teeth in a desperate attempt to get enough money to support her ill daughter. Fantine became a prostitute as a last resort.

Fallen women were common in 19th Century literature – especially in morality tales and stories exposing social injustice. For example, Charles Dickens, popular British novelist, had euphemisms for characters trapped in prostitution; Dickens created good-hearted characters, perhaps asking readers to judge them less harshly by moral standards.[ii]

Images of actress Lily Collins (Les Miserables, 2019)

In Victor Hugo’s novel, Fantine is desperate. She did everything possible to find work, keep creditors at bay, and send money for her daughter. Hair shorn away for money, teeth pulled, sewing 17 hours a day, and with failing health (probably from tuberculosis). Good God! What did they want her to do? … “All right!” she said, “I’ll sell what’s left.” The unfortunate creature became a woman of the streets.[iii]  A new chapter begins, and Hugo begins his condemnation. What is this story of Fantine about? It is about society buying a slave…. They say that slavery has disappeared from European civilization. That is incorrect. It still exists, but now it weighs only on women, and it is called prostitution. It weighs on women, that is to say, on grace, frailty, beauty, motherhood. This is not the least among man’s shames. (emphasis added)[iv]

The next censure continues Fantine’s story. Without explicit scenes, he transports the reader to her darkest experiences and fears, as if her light and life is slowly extinguished as he describes the intimate invasion of her body.

At this stage in the mournful drama, Fantine has nothing left of what she had formerly been. She had turned to marble in becoming corrupted. Whoever touches her feels a chill. She goes her way, she endures you, she ignores you; she is the incarnation of dishonor and severity. Life and the social order have spoken their last word to her. All that can happen to her has happened. She had endured all, borne all, experienced all, suffered all, lost all, wept for all. She is resigned, with that resignation resembling indifference as death resembles sleep. She shuns nothing now. She fears nothing now. Every cloud falls on her, and the whole ocean sweeps over her! What does it matter to her?[v]

Readers in Civil War America likely had differing reactions to this scene and the social commentary in Les Miserables. Prostitution was common in cities north and south. Seedy neighborhoods could be easily found or avoided. The curious could peruse advertisements or even guidebooks for brothels.

Some women found wealth and independence through brothel work. While some women made fortunes selling their bodies to wealthy men or set up opulent bordellos, most it is important to consider that thousands of women — the majority — did not become independently wealthy through sex work. Some may have chosen that life, but others were impoverished, blackmailed, or otherwise coerced. Most nineteenth century prostitutes were miserable, as not all engaged in the occupation willingly.

Some scholars cite morality pamphlets and community norms, concluding that upper and middle class white men controlled their wives through restrictive clothing, gender roles, and a denial or misunderstanding of female desire. This argument claims that such restricted wives only endured intimacy to bear children, leaving men to seek passionate encounters with prostitutes. Others argue that many moral strictures are prudish. Ample evidence suggests that during the Civil War years couples – married or not – were comfortable expressing sexual feelings and discussing intimacy. Surviving letters range from explicit to coded euphemisms. Married soldiers who kept their wedding vows sometimes wrote in horror or sadness about seeing prostitutes being propositioned. (Some single men wrote similar reactions to.)

Not every prostitute was desperate like Fantine and all men did not frequent brothels due to unsatisfactory passion at home. However, prostitution and sex trafficking were common in the United States, particularly in large cities. In 1859, New York City physician William Sanger published a survey of 2,000 prostitutes in that metropolis. He estimated that 12,000 women and girls were engaged in full or part time sex work.[vi] Dr. Sanger asked girls and women why they engaged in prostitution. Their answers were revealing:

  • 26% because they were destitute (like Fantine)
  • 26% because they claimed it was their preferred work
  • 5% because they had been seduced and rejected (like Fantine)
  • 9% because of alcoholism
  • 8% to escape an abusive family or marriage
  • 6% because they said it was an easy life[vii]

Dr. Sanger believed that most prostitutes in New York City were “young, foreign-born, unmarried, had borne a child, came from a poor working class family, and had experienced economic and/or other problems at home before entering prostitution.”[viii] His findings have tragic parallels to fictional Fantine’s story in France.

Prostitution certainly increased during the Civil War. Men were away from their homes and the moral restraints of family and a judging community. Some women faced increased hardships, including rape, abandonment, and economic loss during the war and ended up in prostitution – willingly or unwillingly. It is one of the dark sides of the war that is often consigned to the shadows or made into a titillating joke.

Prostitution increased notably in the capital cities. One reporter called Washington D.C. “the most pestiferous hole since the days of Sodom and Gomorrah,” and claimed that “The majority of the women on the streets were openly disreputable.”[ix] By 1863, an estimated 5,000 prostitutes lived in Washington D.C. and a third of them were on the streets, making a living from soldiers on leave.[x] Contemporary accounts suggest that Richmond’s situation was similar.

Regiments reported increased incidents of sexual disease when encamped in or near large cities. While studies of sexual disease during the Civil War usually focus on men, disease affected women too. Military authorities kept records of thousands of men who had contracted venereal disease, while records of affected women are virtually non-existent. Abortions or pregnancies that must have resulted are also missing from the records.

Are the voices of misery from more than half the women and girls working in brothels or on the streets and answering a doctor’s survey drowned by other stories? Those females and probably thousands more North and South were in some level of misery, trapped by poverty, rejection, or abuse. In Hugo’s final pages, Jean Valjean finally discloses Cosette’s mother’s name to her. Perhaps his words are the place to close these notes and comparisons for now. Perhaps some deeper reflection is needed. Perhaps the words of the few women who were wealthy or said they were happy in their chosen profession are too loud in the historiography. Perhaps the scraps of surviving paper that men wrote about their paid for pleasures have been too intriguing, obscuring historical facts of so many of these women’s experiences.

Her name was Fantine. Remember that name: Fantine…. She suffered a great deal…. Her measure of unhappiness was as full as yours of happiness.[xi]



Thomas P. Lowry, The Story The Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War (Stackpole, 2012).

Kim Murphy, I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War (Coachlight Press, 2014).

Nickie Roberts, Whores in history: Prostitution in Western Society (London: Harper Collins, 1992). 19th Century – Chapters 11, 12, and 13

Tom Winnifrith, Fallen women in the nineteenth-century novel (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994). Accessed through Jstor.

[i] “I Dreamed a Dream,” Les Miserables Musical.

[ii] “Dickens and Sex,” A transcribed lecture:


[iii] Victor Hugo, unabridged translation by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, Les Miserables (New York: New American Library/Signet Classics, 1987). Page 187.

[iv] Ibid., Page 187.

[v] Ibid., Page 187-189

[vi] Elizabeth A. Topping, What’s a Poor Girl To Do? Prostitution in mid-nineteenth century America (Gettysburg: Thomas Publications, 2001). Page 16.

[vii] Ibid., Page 17.

[viii] Ibid., Page 17.

[ix] Ibid., Page 48.

[x] Ibid., Page 49.

[xi] Victor Hugo, unabridged translation by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, Les Miserables (New York: New American Library/Signet Classics, 1987). Page 1461.

1 Response to Les Miserables, the American Civil War, and Women “When It All Went Wrong”

  1. Pingback: Emerging Civil War

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!