Les Miserables, the American Civil War, and The Plight of Orphans

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Injustice had made her peevish, and misery had made her ugly. Nothing remained to her except her beautiful eyes, which inspired pain, because, large as they were, it seemed as though one beheld in them a still larger amount of sadness.

It was a heart-breaking thing to see this poor child, not yet six years old, shivering in the winter in her old rags of linen, full of holes, sweeping the street before daylight, with an enormous broom in her tiny red hands, and a tear in her great eyes.

She was called the Lark in the neighborhood. The populace, who are fond of these figures of speech, had taken a fancy to bestow this name on this trembling, frightened, and shivering little creature, no bigger than a bird, who was awake every morning before any one else in the house or the village, and was always in the street or the fields before daybreak.

Only the little lark never sang.[i]

The word picture of a lonely orphan child and the accompanying illustration became synonymous with Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Her name was Cosette, her mother was Fantine, and her biological father had abandoned both mother and child. Left at an inn under promises of excellent care, Cosette grew up without her mother and in an abusive situation. By age six, she was a picture of neglect, despair, and nearly enslaved by the cruel innkeeper and his wife. In a beautiful and redemptive scene for both characters, Cosette is rescued by Jean Valjean—the repentant convict—who had made a promise to Fantine on her deathbed to find her little girl, protect her, and raise her in safety.

An illustration of orphaned Cosette from 1862.

As the novel Les Miserables circulated through camps and parlors during the years of the American Civil War, thousands of children in the north and south faced futures with widowed mothers or as orphans due to the costly conflict. Some children never knew their fathers who died on battlefields or in hospitals. Other children felt the pain of their loving homes turned upside down when tragic news arrived. Sometimes, these children were immediately taken in by other family members. Other times, they became wanderers in a society that had felt horrified compassion for fictional Cosette but struggled with how to help and protect the war orphans at their own doorsteps.

While the practical care of Civil War orphans proved challenging, the concept of orphans fed the patriotic stories and pathos that both sides liked to evoke. Historian James Alan Marten points out in his book The Children’s Civil War that “Fatherless children proved to be potent symbols and poignant reminders of the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of good men in the name of the Union or the Confederacy.”[ii]

It seems that Civil War era primary sources used the word “orphan” to describe children who had lost both parents and youth who had lost their fathers. Sometimes widows appealed for aid for raising their orphans. Perhaps this reflects some of the concept that fathers supported and protected the family, and without a father, these children were orphaned.

Large orphanages or “orphan homes” existed in the United States prior to the Civil War to care for those children who had lost parents and did not have other family or legal guardians. Most of the orphanages were privately operated and often connected to religious, charitable organizations. Sometimes, these institutions came into the path of war. For example, some southern cities under threat of attack hurried to find safer places for these orphans. At Natchez, at least 130 orphans huddled under artillery fire. A bishop arrived and gave them religious absolution before they escaped the barrage and refugeed to a desolate and ramshackle plantation house outside the battle area.[iii] Even when out of direct harm’s way, the Civil War reached into orphanages. St. Anthony’s Orphanage in Baltimore, Maryland experienced a “war-like spirit” which divided the children into Secessionists and Unionists; arguments and wrestling matches over the political views routinely happened during free time.[iv]

Some war orphans became famous and symbols of loss and memory. In the South, Julia Jackson—daughter of Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson—was acknowledged as one of the “Orphans of the Confederacy.” Thrust into a public role, Julia took part in Confederate veteran gatherings until her death at age 26. In the North, Amos Humiston’s children’s faces were printed thousands of times in newspapers, song sheets, and poetry. The three young children were half-orphaned when their father died on Gettysburg battlefield, clutching their photograph. The photograph was published and eventually their now-widowed mother saw the image, leading to the identification of Amos Humiston’s body and some financial assistance for the family.

The Humiston children, from left, Franklin, Frederick and Alice

Another prominent war orphan had a complex story and experience. A young African American boy—known to history as Jim Limber—lived in Jefferson Davis’s household. Rescued from a beating on the streets of Richmond by Varina Davis, he was listed as “free” and likely presumed to be an orphaned child of freedmen. He seemed to find some measure of safety and comfort in the Confederate White House with the Davis family, having fond memories of their kindness and care for him. At the end of the Civil War when Union troops apprehended the Davis family, Jim was forcibly separated from the white children and Mrs. Davis. Sent to a camp for freedmen and put into school, the orphaned boy became angry when he heard his new companions wishing to “hang Jeff Davis.” Seeming unable to comprehend the complexity of the situation, young Jim focused on the loss of the family who had “taken him in” and showed him kindness. Many stories and likely legends exist about Jim Limber in Civil War and Southern Memory. But he seemed to have considered himself one of the fortunate orphans rescued from the streets.[v]

Most orphans did not have prominent stories or public images, though. Even a clear number of orphaned children in America during or because of the Civil War is difficult to determine. Historian James Alan Marten noted, “anecdotal evidence suggests that there were thousands of war orphans.”[vi] He then lists a few known records from northern orphanages:

  • New York Newsboys Lodging Homes noted an almost doubling of boys needing shelter.
  • The Northern Home for Friendless Childress reported 160 children in their care and knew that about half of those children had lost a father in the war.
  • In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 575 children were admitted to orphanages, and 144 of those children were known to have lost father or other male relatives in the war.[vii]

Attempting to care for the destitute children, many new orphanages were formed. Religious entities led in the charitable efforts. But recognizing the children’s loss because of their fathers’ military service, state and national government also tried to step forward with aid. Many northern states created “Soldiers’ Orphans’ Homes,” starting in 1862. Union veterans and the Grand Army of the Republic also supported orphanages in the post war era.[viii] In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, some railroad companies donated thousands of dollars to build schools or orphan homes. In post-war Ohio, Governor Rutherford B. Hayes felt horrified to learn that at least 2,000 children were homeless and another 300 had sought refuge in public state hospitals; he rallied the Grand Army of the Republic, added layers of “bloody shirt politics,” and eventually convinced the Ohio legislature to create an “orphans’ bill” to provide state funding.[ix] Despite serving hundreds of children, the individual homes for war orphans began to close their doors by the mid-1870s. The children were grown, or charitable interest and funding lacked.

Sometimes, soldiers’ orphans’ homes closed due to investigation. Reports of child neglect or abuse came from some of the refuges. Even the National Homestead at Gettysburg, an orphanage established through the inspiration of the Humiston Children’s story, had terrible reports, leading to Matron Rosa Carmichael’s conviction, fines, and dismissal from the orphanage and Gettysburg community.[x]

In the states of the Confederacy during the war years, economic hardship and war destruction created additional hardships. Some orphans who were old enough to work were intentionally employed in government industries – like ammunition factories.[xi] While the work provided some measure of security, it was also highly dangerous. After the war, the southern states did not have an organized effort to shelter or provide for orphans. Some individual cities took responsibilities and set up orphans’ homes. As Confederate veteran and women’s’ groups organized, they set aside funding and services for the war orphans in their communities.[xii]

African American orphans faced some of the most daunting challenges during and after the Civil War. Some were literally orphans, others simply did not know where their parents were as slavery, the war, and even freedom tore their families apart. In some southern states, Black children who had been orphaned or whose parents could not support them were ordered into “apprenticeship programs” that looked similar to slavery, only escaping when they turned 18.[xiii] Under more charitable motivations though lacking equality, segregated orphanages or homes were established both formally and informally.[xiv] But scenes of destitution rivaling Victor Hugo’s fiction language still exist. For example:

A visitor to the freedpeople in Washington in the spring of 1865 described the helplessness and degradation of families without food and babies without diapers or clothes. A nine-year-old girl supported her mother and younger siblings by selling rags. The dozen freedpeople huddled in a stable on Capitol Hill included a young girl with consumption, a motherless boy with pneumonia, and an infant dying of malnutrition, while another group of six children ranging in age from one to twelve lived in a shed in a sea of mud with no fire or food and wearing only “shreds of garments.”[xv]

As American shook their heads regretfully over fictional poor Cosette, a crisis of orphaned children was enacted around them. Mid-19th Century social reforms had trailblazed some ideas and options which political leaders or veterans were able to revise and expand into schools or orphan homes. Religious and charitable organizations also had their parts and did their best to meet the challenge of the thousands of unsupported and often unprotected children. Silent and often-now-forgotten victims of war, these orphans had their lives upended by war, and those who survived would be part of the generation that did not fight in the conflict but had been transformed by it. They would take their memories and try to make meaning of them or attempt to bury them in new national pursuits by the later decades of the century.



Sarah D. Bair, “Making Good on a Promise: The Education of Civil War Orphans in Pennsylvania, 1863-1893” in History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 51, No. 4 (November 2011). Pages 460-485. Accessed through Jstor.

James Alan Marten, Sing Not War: The Lives of Union & Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

Richard F. Miller, “For His Wife, His Widow, and His Orphan: Massachusetts and Family Aid during the Civil War” in Massachusetts Historical Review, Vol. 6 (2004). Pages 70-106. Accessed through Jstor.

“Widows and Orphans” in Confederate Phoenix: Rebel Children and Their Families in South Carolina (2008). Pages 102-107. Accessed through Jstor.

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

[ii] James Marten, The Children’s Civil War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000). Page 14.

[iii] Ibid., Page 122.

[iv] Ibid., Page 153.

[v] Ibid., Pages 125, 175.

[vi] Ibid., Page 211.

[vii] Ibid., Page 211.

[viii] Ibid., Page 212.

[ix] Ibid., Page 213.

[x] Ibid., Page 215.

[xi] Ibid., Page 172.

[xii] Ibid., Page 217.

[xiii] John Hope Franklin, “Public Welfare in the South during the Reconstruction Era, 1865-80” in Social Service Review, Vol. 44, No. 4 (December 1970). Page 386. Accessed through Jstor.

[xiv] James Marten, The Children’s Civil War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000). Page 196.

[xv] Ibid., Page 131.

2 Responses to Les Miserables, the American Civil War, and The Plight of Orphans

  1. Another excellent post! You’re very right that too often, people feel “horrified compassion” for fictional characters, whether in book or on film or TV, but “struggle with how to help and protect the war orphans (or others in need) at their own doorsteps.” I’ve just been reading the historical fiction novel “Sunflower Sisters,” by Martha Hall Kelly, and one of the chapters deals with the New York Draft Riots, where a hate-filled mob ransacks the Colored Orphan Asylum – which housed 233 children at the time – looting and burning it to the ground. Fortunately, they escape the burning building with the help of the matron, who led them out. The author puts one of her main characters at the scene. SO MANY orphans were made by the Civil War.

  2. Orphanages – in a time of no real state assistance – were the place of last resort for families to place their children when facing economic difficulties. Many children were placed there on a temporary basis until the family – usually a single mother could find better finances. The United Daughters of the Confederacy had as a core mission supporting families of Confederate veterans. They made cash contributions to such families.

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