The internet research hub for Victor Hugo enthusiasts
Scarlett checked a start of terror as she dimly saw bearded faces peering in the windows at them. Melanie sat down and with a hand that did not tremble reached for a book on the table. It was a ragged copy of Les Miserables, that book which caught the fancy of the Confederate soldiers. They had read it by camp-fire light and took some grim pleasure in calling it Lee’s Miserables. She opened it at the middle and began to read in a clear monotonous voice.
note: In the same scene in the movie, Charles Dickens' David Copperfield is used.
I certainly laid down that night one of “Lee’s Miserables,” as we used to term ourselves, after reading Victor Hugo’s great novel – a soldier edition of his works in Confederate “sheep’s wool paper” having been distributed largely throughout the army the preceeding winter.
La Salle Corbell Pickett was the widow of General Pickett, of the US Confederate Army.
A want more painful for many than the lack of food or clothing was the poverty of our libraries.
Perhaps you think you know the value of the art of printing. You go into your library and seat yourself in an easy chair and look around with complacent air upon your literary treasures. You could not imagine life without your favorite authors. You hear them speak to you through the silence. You feel the air pulsating with their swift, strong, warm heart-beats. You stretch out eager hands and feel the tender clasp of the hands that grasped life’s deepest forces in the ages gone. You stand with prophets, poets, kings, of the great world of thought. Down in the depths of your soul you thank Faust and Gutenberg for having been born.
You will never have an adequate sense of the extent of your indebtedness to those grand Teutons until you have grown accustomed to regarding even last week’s newspaper as a gracious benefaction, a summer novel as an Olympian gift, a fugitive stanza, drifted across your way by a friendly wind, as a great rose-garden of the mind, filling your world full of beauty and fragrance.
If you had known all these things you would realize what my feelings were when our good friend, General Rufus Ingalls, of the United States army, sent to us across the lines a beautiful copy of “Les Miserables”. How we wept with Fantine and Cosette! How we loved the good Mayor Madeline, all the dearer to us because he had once been 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!
The soldiers, with a quick instinct of appropriateness born of experience, rechristened the work, Lee’s Miserables, and certainly no book ever achieved the popularity of that most marvelous picture of life. They watched with eager eyes and hearts its progress along the line. They formed groups around the camp-fire and the man who was deemed to have the greatest elocutionary development was appointed reader for the assembly.
"It’s our turn now. The General’s wife said we were to have 'Lee's Miserables' next," one would cry out triumphantly.
"It’s too good a book to be lent around in this way to the men," said a book-lover, jealously, glancing over the many penciled marks; for after the initiatory christening and comments the men began in turn as they read it to write their sentiments, till every space—margin, fly-leaf, every spot, in fact, where the pencil could find room for a name, a word, a thought – was covered.
They called themselves, “Lee’s Miserables.”
That was a grim piece of humor, was it not, reader? And the name had a somewhat curious origin. Victor Hugo’s work, Les Miserables had been translated and published by a house in Richmond; the soldiers, in the great dearth of reading matter, had seized upon it; and thus, by a strange chance the tragic story of the great French writer had become known to the soldiers in the trenches. Everywhere, you might see the gaunt figures in their tattered jackets bending over the dingy pamphlets – “Fantine,” or “Cosette,” or “Marius,” or “St. Denis,” and the woes of “Jean Valjean,” the old galley-slave, found an echo in the hearts of these brave soldiers, immersed in the trenches and fettered by duty to their muskets or their cannon.
Singular fortune of a writer! Happy M. Hugo! Your fancies crossed the ocean, and transmitted into a new tongue, whiled away the dreary hours of the old soldiers of Lee, at Petersburg!
Thus, that history of “The Wretched,” was the pabulum of the South in 1864; and as the French title had retained on the backs of the pamphlets, the soldiers, little familiar with the Gallic pronunciation, called the book “Lees Miserables!” Then another step was taken. It was no longer the book, but themselves whom they referred to by that name. The old veterans of the army henceforth laughed at their miseries, and dubbed themselves grimly, “Lee’s Miserables!”
The sobriquet was gloomy,. And there was something tragic in the employment of it; but it was applicable. Like most popular terms, it expressed the exact thought in the mind of every one – coined the situation into a phrase.