Red Badge of Courage The Red Badge of Courage is the story of a young man named Henry Fleming. The novel concerns only two days in his life and he is a boy when the novel begins, a man when the novel ends. He enlists in the 304th Regiment of New York Volounteers against his mother’s wishes, and spends many boring months in training. He is sent into battle finally. The battle of Chancellorville is the agreed upon location where the book probably takes place.
It is mentioned that he travels along the Arappahanock River and by Richmond. The book details historical fact of the battle. This was the closest the South ever came to Washington D.C. and it was a very intense battle. Against a background of battlefield trauma, Crane sets a very important battle: the battle going on in Henry’s mind.
Henry believes he is faced with imminent death, and throws down his rifle and flees during the second skirmish on the first day. He attempts to rationalize his actions and becomes increasingly ashamed of himself. As he wanders in the rear of the fighting, he encounters a dead soldier. Eventually he falls in with some wounded men and witnesses the death of his close friend, Jim Conklin. As a result of that, he deserts another friend dying and runs.
He wants to make a wound for himself so that he is removed from the battle, and by accident is hit on the head by a deserter. He’s discovered by another soldier, who helps him return to his regiment. There he lies and says he was wounded in battle. The next day he goes to the front again, and actually retrieves his army’s colors from the dying flag bearer. He urges his comrads on, and is proclaimed a hero. Crane wrote this book when he was twenty three years old, in ten days. He had never been in battle and critics through the United States and England could not believe that he had never seen war.
His sources were teachers athis small private school in New York State. The book’s genius is now regarded as an American masterpiece of psychological writing. Unfortunately, it seems he was probably haunted by the experience of this book and ultimately went to join the Spanish American War. He was disqualified from fighting due to tuberculosis, but he continued into Cuba as a reporter for Pulitzer and Hearst. He contracted malaria there and several years later died at the age of twenty eight. The Red Badge of Courage is an intense inner story of thoughts, fears and imaginings that any member of an infantry would find.
As comrads fell to the right and left, and as people were pannicked, the chaos and confusion of kill or be killed comes forth in simple boyish questions. He stares at corposes. He becomes obsessed with the thought that the troops are marching into a trap and none of the leaders know it. He wants to warn his companions. He feels stupid and incompetent.
The first battle arrives and he feels the physical effects of fighting burning in his eyes and roaring in his ears. He feels suffocated by the smoke of gunfire. All the soldiers and officers are fighting in every way possible and when it stops, infront of him, he sees everyone around him dead and the wounded crawling away. He hears the sounds of fighting coming from everywhere and realizes that he is surrounded by war. Crane’s language becomes impressionistic.
Henry is amazed to see “a pure blue sky and the sun gleaming on the trees and fields.” He then wakes up, somehow, and sees how proud he is of himself. Suddenly the enemy reappears. The youth feels it must be a mistake. He sees men around him running and he feels he is being left alone to die. He turns and runs.
He runs into yet another battle where, at the edge of the forest, he feels as if he’s being kept in by nature itself. That the branches of the trees are trying to halt his progress. He sees his friend Jim Conklin shot through the stomach, mortally wounded, and is told he should remove him from the battle. Jim runs to the bushes before he dies to avoid being run over by war wagons. Henry watches with an agony almost as great as his friend.
Henry tries to understand what Jim is thinking but cannot reach his friend. Crane ends the chapter with the sentance, “The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer.” The soldier left behind is now dying as well, and Henry runs, unable to confront yet another death. He is symbolically leaving his image of a hero. His running takes him back towards a battle and finally, just as he is contemplating some sort of wound to get him away he is hit on the head by a coward running faster than he. He’s very hungry, very tired and his feet ache.
Now he lays in the woods with a terrible head wound and feels he can just die. He meets a nameless person who leads him back to his regiment. The man dissapears as quickly as he’s come. His friends in his regiment have no idea where he has been and yet they are so happy to see him alive that they give him coffee, food, and put him to bed. He sleeps soundly that night, probably from exhaustion.
The next morning, the regiment wakes up, prepares for battle. Henry thinks he can keep his secret and goes, behaves like a real soldier. He begins daydreaming about returning home and telling his mother and friends wonderful stories of the war. He thinks he has learned the truth about life, that neither bravery nor cowardice matters if they are not noticed by others; what happens to a man is largely governed by chance. If things go well, he can be satisfied, if they do not, he must do the best he can under the circumstances.
“In the present,” he declared to himself, “That it was only the doomed and the damned who roared with sincerity at circumstance. Few but they ever did it. A man with the fool stomach and the respect ofhis fellows had no business to scold about anything that he may think to be wrong with the ways of the universe, or even the ways of society. Let the unfortunates rail; the others may play marbles.” Henry realizes that was is not what he imagined. He imagines he had been favored by fate, that he had acted wisely the day before. The regiment marches to relieve a command which has been fighting in deep, dark trenches.
No one can speak, the gunfire is everywhere. Everyone is tense, worn and exhausted and they wait “like men tied to stakes.” One of their friends is shot and Henry and his good friend Wilson go to get water. On the way they see an overview of the battlefield and are appalled at the fury of so many men. While they walk back, they come upon a general and the staff. They listen secretly, and to their amazement they hear an officer refer to their regement as a lot of mule drivers.
They learn their regiment is taking the offensive, and that to charge against the enemy means not many will survive. They plan to tell their fellows but they don’t. They keep it to themselves and enter the battle. The charge begins and there is so much pushing and shoving that Henry doesn’t comprehend that the line is moving forward. He runs to a distant clump of trees as fast as he can.
The enemy shoots, and Henry without realizing it is leading his regiment. He moves from tree to tree, and notices each blade of green grass and the rough texture of the bark on the trees. Henry, with Wilson close behind, run infront of the regiment, leading the way across the field and yelling, “Come on!” He runs as fast as he can to avoid being hit by a bullet before he reaches the trees. The man next to him holds the flag, and when that man falls, Henry reaches and grabs the flag. Henry keeps the flag and just as the enemy prepares to gather forces and attack again, the nmen pannick.
Henry walks into the mob and holds the flag up high. The enemy attacks at close range, yet the regiment holds and repulses the onslaught. Several men run up to the two youths in the quiet and tell them they are being cited for bravery and valor. Instead of remembering the mule drivers, they think of themselves as heroes. Yet another battle and the officers tell the men to charge.
Henry considers and decides that if they were to stay where they were, they would be killed. Crane writes, “It was a blind and despairing rush by the collection of men in dusty and tattered blue over a green sward and under a sapphire sky toward a fence, dimly outlined in smoke, from behind which spluttered the fierce rifles of enemies.” Henry keeps the flag and waves it toward the front. Henry grabs the enemy flag in the battle and is now carrying both. He gives one flag to his friend Wilson and keeps the other one for himself. The novel ends with Henry moving along in a group of very weary soldier, away from the violence of battle.
He smiles to himself, “For he saw that the world was a world for him. His mind turns to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows and cool brooks.” The battle is over, and ironically the men are ordered back to the spot where they had started. He looks at his heroic deeds, puts his sins in prospective and feels neither proud nor guilty. He is glad to be alive. Crane ends the novel with a poetic description of the nature surrounding the weary soldiers. The book ends with everyone in peace.
I enjoyed the book more than I had when I read it O’ so many years ago. I believe a little experience is required to put these things in prospective, more than a ten year old boy possesses. It is a very complex work, under the skin of the story.