Les Miserables, the American Civil War, and War’s Scenes

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While Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is probably most remembered in literature studies for its social indictment and commentary, it has dramatic military scenes woven into its pages. Notably the battle of Waterloo (June 18, 1815) and the fight for the Paris barricades (June 5-6, 1832) gave Hugo an opportunity to explore military themes and how they fit into the large picture of miserable society that he saw and emphasized.

The military themes resonated well with American readers in blue and gray. The descriptions of the great European battle which finally defeated Napoleon or the story of the desperate uprising and fight to the death put battle and death into literary form. LaSalle Corbell Pickett, wife of Confederate General George Pickett, remembered dramatically in her post-war stories:

How we wept with Fantine and Cosette! How we loved the good Mayor Madeleine, all dearer to us because he had once been Jean Valjean! How we hated Javert, that cold and stony pillar of “authority”! How we starved with Marius and waxed indignant in contemplating his frigid grandfather! How we fought over and over the wonderful battle of Waterloo, and compared it with other contests of which we knew! (emphasis added)[1]

Victor Hugo admired Napoleon and his father had fought with the French emperor. Hugo longed for a return to the days of nationalism and glory that he believed had existed during Napoleon’s reign and wars. In Les Miserables, he used the battle of Waterloo as a plot device: the place where Marius’s father dies and the battlefield where the corrupt innkeeper Thenardier crafts his brave legend (but in reality robbed the dead). Differences of opinion about Napoleon and the French royals led to the division between Marius and his grandfather which is only mended after Marius nearly dies at the barricades. Though Hugo uses Waterloo as a plot point in the backstory, he devoted a long description interlude to write about the battle beyond his characters. This tangent came from his fascination with the historic fight and battlefield touring.

Hugo visited Waterloo in 1852 and then returned nine years later to study the battlefield. He spent two months walking the ground. “There, I made the autopsy of the catastrophe,” and later described the battle as “one of my permanent emotions.”[2] Ultimately, some of the Waterloo section would read like a travelogue or contemplative journal mixed with history and then circling back to the novel’s plot. Perhaps inspired and perhaps wanting to make sense of Napoleon’s defeat and the changes it brought to society, Hugo wrote his Waterloo chapters for Les Miserables in a hotel at Mont Saint-Jean, looking toward the battlefield. On June 30, 1861, he noted: “I have finished Les Miserables on the battlefield of Waterloo…”[3]

Within the volume Cosette is “Book One: Waterloo”—58 pages in the trade paperback version devoted to this battle. Some of the descriptions could vividly have been applied to scenes around American readers during the Civil War, too. For example:

(Describing the farm buildings at Huogomont, a bloody bastion) You still feel the storm of combat in this court: Its horror is visible; the upheaval of conflict is petrified there; it lives, it dies; it was only yesterday. The walls are still in death throes; the stones fall, the breaches cry out; the holes are wounds; the trees bend and shudder, as if making an effort to escape.[4]

Hugo described the battlefield topography, troop movements, the commander, and then focused on stories of soldiers – an interpretive pattern used in traditional military history. He did not pretend to write history and did not sacrifice military drama for accuracy, often including local oral tradition to add to his thoughts and storytelling. Then he pondered the outcome of the battle and showed how war changed society:

Might it have been possible for Napoleon to win this battle? We answer no. Why? Because of Wellington? Because of Blucher? No. Because of God.

For Bonaparte to be conqueror at Waterloo was no longer within the law of the nineteenth century. Another series of acts was under way in which Napoleon had no place. The ill-will of events had long been coming.

It was time for the titan to fall.

The excessive weight of this man in human destiny disturbed the equilibrium. This individual alone counted for more than the whole of mankind. This plethora of all human vitality concentrated within a single head, the world rising to the brain of one man, would be fatal of civilization if it endured. The moment had come for incorruptible supreme equity to look into it. Probably the principles and elements on which regular gravitation in the moral and material orders depend had begun to mutter. Reeking blood, overcrowded cemeteries, weeping mothers – these are formidable plaintiffs. When the earth is suffering from a surcharge, there are mysterious moanings from the deeps that the heaves hear.

Napoleon had been impeached before the Infinite, and his fall was decreed. He annoyed God.

Waterloo is not a battle; it is the changing face of the universe.[5]

By transferring the battle’s outcome to God, Hugo manages to both absolve his hero (Napoleon) and hold to his belief that the 19th Century needed change by putting power in the hands of the people, not a powerful authority ruler. While it is a stretch to attribute themes of the Southern Lost Cause to Hugo’s pattern, there are parallels of placing the outcome in the hands of providence and continuing to admire the people and traditions of the past while attributing the downfall to powers beyond their control.[6]

While the musical adaption of Les Miserables does not feature Waterloo, the 2018 BBC adaption offers gritty and grisly scenes of the fighting and battlefield, following the novel’s backstory. (photo from production; no known copyright)
Waterloo aftermath (2018 BBC Adaption)

Even while he argued that large scale war could be necessary to allow for social change, Hugo did not lose sight of the aftermath. He pronounced “Waterloo was more of a massacre than a battle”[7] and spent time considering the losses. Like Civil War soldiers and modern visitors to now-silent battlefields, Hugo seemed haunted by the idea that “The field of Waterloo today has that calm belonging to the earth…it looks like any other plain. At night, however, a sort of visionary mist arises from it, and if some traveler is walking there, if he looks, if he listens…he will be possessed by hallucinations of the disaster.”[8]

Similar themes arise when Hugo addressed the street fighting at the barricades during the Paris uprising in 1832. He argued that under certain circumstances violence and armed revolt might be necessary for social change, but he did not lose sight of the loss and often needless sacrifice that resulted from such a choice. The ABC Club (fictional revolutionary students) all die, except for Marius who is saved by Valjean. But according to Hugo, “men sacrifice themselves for these visions.”[9]

Vision and causes drove Hugo’s warriors, some fighting “for a new world that would rise up like the sun” (Les Miserables musical, Turning) and others fighting to keep an old system and order. Depending on their reasonings for fighting, Civil War soldiers of both sides could have seen themselves in the story. Confederates seemed to associate with the desperation of the fighters at the barricades. While some Union soldiers may have found the idea of bringing freedom and national change through armed conflict aligning with their ideas.

Stage adaption of the barricades in Les Miserables (Vanity Fair, 2013)

American soldiers may have found the close combat description similar to some of their experiences. In France, it was barricades. In America, it was trenches. The following passage resonates with the universals of war and could be applied to Paris or Spotsylvania or Franklin:

“Fire!” said the voice.

Crimson flashed…as if the door of a furnace were opened and abruptly closed.

A fearful explosion burst over the barricade. The red flag fell. The volley had been so heavy and so dense that it had cut the staff, that is to say, the very point of the pole…. Some bullets had ricocheted…entered the barricade and wounded several men.[10]

War in Les Miserables had flashes of glory, purpose of cause (both human and divine), and the grim reality of death and loss. Hugo both glorified and horrified armed conflict, offering the juxtaposition that sometimes war would be necessary to achieve change. Yet his story seems to warn against battle without hope of success. The boys in the barricade encourage the men with families to leave and not become freedom’s martyrs, recognizing that more personal and social misery could occur if fathers or other family supporters died.

The scenes of Paris were an ocean away from from readers in blue and gray, but the war scenes read familiar. These readers were engaged in a war, and they could understand the moments when the ideals ended and the battle became intense for survival. That moment when “It was no longer a conflict, it was a darkness, a fury, a giddy vortex of souls and courage, a hurricane of flashing swords.”[11]



[1] 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 18. (Accessed through Jstor).

[2] Waterloo Association, “Victor Hugo’s Account of the Battle of Waterloo” https://www.waterlooassociation.org.uk/2019/02/22/victor-hugos-account-of-the-battle-of-waterloo/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Victor Hugo, unabridged translation by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, Les Miserables (New York: New American Library/Signet Classics, 1987), Page 304.

[5] Ibid., Pages 529-530.

[6] See J. William Jones, Christ in the Camp (reprinted – Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 1986) and Wiley Sword, Southern Invincibility: A History of the Confederate Heart (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999).

[7] Victor Hugo, unabridged translation by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, Les Miserables (New York: New American Library/Signet Classics, 1987), Page 347.

[8] Ibid., Pages 347-348.

[9] Ibid., Page 1239.

[10] Ibid., Page 1131.

[11] Ibid., Page 332.

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