Les Misérables

How Les Misérables Became Lee's Miserables

Cover page from West & Johnston translation of Les Miserables, which was distributed to Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. (Source: Hathi Trust)

When Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables was published in the spring of 1862, it took the world by storm. Within weeks, American audiences began devouring a five-volume translation by renowned classicist Charles E. Wilbour. As the Civil War raged, soldiers on both sides of the lines gobbled up copies and carried them into battle. But here's the thing: Confederate soldiers weren't actually reading the same book as their Northern adversaries, and that was by design.