First published in 1895, “The Red Badge of Courage” written by Stephen Crane is a story about an idealistic young man who comes of age during a horrific battle in the Civil War.
Henry Fleming has always dreamed of being a hero. He can’t wait to be old enough to join the army and fight in glorious battles. He pictures himself coming home with great wounds and telling stories of his brave deeds. Or dying in battle and leaving weeping women in his wake. All would tell tales of the brave young man who died for his country.
When his mother finally allows him to go, Henry wants the tearful goodbye. He has his dialogue written in his head, straight from a Greek tragedy. But, his mother sends him off like he is a child. Reminding him that she packed his new socks, and to mind his manners.
Along the way to Washington, his regiment was fussed over. They were given the best foods by the women, who flirted with them and old men patted him on the back. He was quite puffed up with pride and didn’t believe the old veterans when they spoke of blood and guts. Henry was going to fight dragons.
But , then reality hit. The camps were hot and dirty. The food was terrible and he learned the age old truth all military people learn; there is a lot of “hurry up and wait.” Troops are moved quickly to a location, then they wait patiently for more orders. Henry’s main fear is that when the battle comes his courage will fail him. He fears he will run. As it turns out, his fears are justified. At the first battle, he does run. But, he returns and sticks it out. If not becoming a hero, at least showing courage.
Very few young people who enlist in the armed services do so with realistic expectations. They usually have dreams of glory and honor. They want to test their mettle, to show how strong and brave they are. Young Henry Fleming was no exception.
The book opens with Jim Conklin washing his shirt at the bank of a stream. One lesson men learn fast when they enlist in the army is how to perform what would have been considered ‘women’s work’ back home. After washing his shirt, Conklin went back to the camp to spread a rumor he had heard. Their troop is finally going to move into battle. Some of the men are excited, some are anxious, but everyone has an opinion. But, Henry felt he wasn’t quite part of the raucous group. When the spectacle of a rather round private trying to acquire a horse from a dooryard occurred, Henry still didn’t join in with the men. Even when the occupant of the house, a little girl began to chase the man around with a stick, he didn’t join in with their egging her on. He didn’t care that the man did not manage to steal the horse.
Young Henry was busy day dreaming about his home and missing it. Henry thinks the only way a man can show his bravery is through battle. That’s why he enlisted, against his mother’s wishes. Henry loved to read tales of Greek heroes. He felt men had become complacent. “Secular and religious education had effaced the throat-grappling instinct, or else firm finance held in check the passions.”
He remembers saying goodbye to his school mates, young girls who were watching him march away with sadness in their eyes. Feeling like a brave soldier going out to meet sure death, he arrives at Washington, where his troop is assembled. He fondly dreams about the abundance of food, the warm smiles from girls and pats on the back from the old men. He and his fellow soldiers had such a fuss made over them at each stop, that Henry began to feel he was already a hero.But now, the realities of day to day camp life have begun to wipe some of the shine off the adventure. As he laid in bed daydreaming, he began to worry. Henry had never been in a situation like
But now, the realities of day to day camp life have begun to wipe some of the shine off the adventure. As he laid in bed daydreaming, he began to worry. Henry had never been in a situation like the battle. He was afraid he might run. When he asked Jim Conklin if he was concerned, the man answered that he thought they would follow the rest of the men. Fight when they fought, run when they ran. Henry was glad we were not the only one worried about his own courage.
Later he asks his buddy, Wilson, when he sat down beside him to inquire why he was so glum. The boy said he was just thinking and asked why Wilson was so cheered, especially since he was just complaining about walking so much, and this would require a lot of walking. Wilson said he wouldn’t mind marching if it was to a goal, not just moving from useless spot to useless spot. Henry asked him if he was worried about his bravery at the time of battle, especially since Wilson was so fearful. Wilson says when the time comes he will do his share of fighting, and stomps away indignantly.
Henry decides that no one else appears to be struggling with the same worries as him, therefore, he must be a “mental outcast”. The regiment is on the move. As they marched the troops began to lose faith in their commanders. They were marching at dawn every morning. Soon, the heat of the day and the forced fast march, made them start to drop their backpacks and extra gear. They were trimming down to what they needed to eat and shoot. Henry began to think of them as a “blue demonstration”.
One morning Henry runs up a hill with his troop, expecting to see a full battalion of rebels. But, what they saw was one dead man, stripped of his dignity. The men kept running towards the enemy. Henry gets swept along with them. He knows that not only could he not break through the men to turn around now, but, if he tripped and fell, they would trample him. He is sure the commanding officers are sending them to a certain death. But, the troop stop movement. Some of the men build barricades to fire from, which they have to leave the next morning when the officers start them marching back over the ground they had already covered. The moral of the troops start to dip.
But, as they move closer, and the gunfire grows louder, Henry’s friend, Wilson, comes up to him. Wilson is afraid he won’t survive the coming skirmish and asks Henry to deliver some letters to his loved ones. When the troop meets up with the enemy, their commander is shot in the hand immediately, then the veteran soldiers from up around the less experienced troops to fight. The veterans are yelling insults at the enemy, but, the rookies are too scared to speak, including Henry. What Henry doesn’t realize is he’s not the first rookie to experience this fear, that’s why the veterans box them in, so they can prevent them from bolting, it’s not to protect them. Henry is sure that when the battle reaches it’s most fearful, he will be the fastest runner.
Finally, Henry’s troop receives fire. As the battle commences, Henry joins in with his brothers in arms. He keeps up a steady rhythm of load, fire, reload. The men around him fought like puppets, “there was a singular absence of heroic poses.” He began to see the stories of battle were lies, the reality was not at all pretty. But, the line held and the battle ceased.
Henry’s troop was exultant. They cheered and patted each other on the back. After the battle, Henry begins to breathe again. He takes a look around at the trees and the blue sky. How could the world not look different after the bloody battle? Nature kept going, regardless of the horrors man inflicted on each other.
Thinking the worst is over, and he has proven his courage, Henry begins to relax. All his comrades are doing the same. But, when word comes through the ranks that the enemy has renewed their charge, the mood shifts completely. Henry decides the enemy is too tough. “To the youth, it was an onslaught of redoubtable dragons.” When around him, soldiers begin to toss down their guns and run, Henry joined them. Suddenly, he realizes that his cap and gun are gone, and he is in flight, with no plan as to where.
When he finally slows down, he sees a general atop a horse. Thinking the man is the biggest imbecile ever and he would like to throttle the general, Henry is surprised to learn his troop held the line and was victorious. Feeling guilty and furious, he began to pity himself. He reasons that it was smart for him to run, every soldier should protect himself. As he continues to walk away, Henry throws a pine cone at a squirrel. When the squirrel runs away, he takes that as a sign that it is natural to run when faced with danger.
Walking along, Henry hears a loud roar of battle in the distance. Curious, he moves toward it. Along the way, he comes across a line of wounded headed down the road. As he falls in next to a “tattered man”, Henry listens to him praise the bravery of his comrades. When the tattered man asks where Henry is wounded, Henry turns away and slides through the crowd, getting away from the man.
Walking next to another group of men, Henry begins to envy them their wounds, their “red badge of courage.” Suddenly, Henry realizes that the spectral man he is walking next to is Jim Conklin. Jim has been shot and is worried that he will fall down on the road and be trampled by wagons. Henry promises to take care of Jim. When Henry offers to let Jim lean on him, Jim refuses his touch.
Soon a man told Henry to get Jim off the road. Wagons were coming and Jim looked at death’s door. Henry turns to look down the road, and Jim takes off for the bushes. Henry takes off after his friend, only to have the man stop and then drop to the ground in death. Turning to see the tattered man has followed them, Henry starts back to the road. The tattered man is amazed at the strength Jim exhibited to run when he was so badly injured. The he says that he doesn’t feel well, either. When Henry asks him if he is about to die, too, the man says no, he just wants some soup and he has children who need him. But, as he continues to talk Henry realizes the man is dying. He calls Henry by another man’s name and asks to see his wound. His speech is shaky and confused. So, heartlessly, Henry leaves the man and climbs a fence to get away. He doesn’t want to be tormented anymore on his lack of wound that would necessitate leaving the front lines.
As he continues along, Henry hears the sounds of battle growing louder. He sees a group of infantry headed for the battle and envies them. But, at the same time, he still thinks the battle will turn against his side and he would have been wise to leave. On the other hand, if they prove victorious, he needs a good excuse for leaving.
While trying to come up with a plausible reason, Henry sees the infantry he envied has met the enemy and been overwhelmed. They are in flight. He tries to question the men, but, they are running too fast. Finally, he grabs a man to ask what happened. The man screams at Henry to let him go and then smashes him in the head with the butt of his rifle. Now he has his wound, his “red badge”. When he can walk again, Henry continues until he comes across a helpful man who offers to help Henry find his troop. The man leaves Henry with his troop, and he realizes he never even saw the man’s face who helped him.
Henry is just one of many men who are struggling back into the camp. They all thought he was dead, but are glad to see him mobile. After tending to him, the corporal assumes the wound is from a musket ball. He tells Henry to get some rest.
The next morning, when he wakes, Henry is disoriented and at first thinks all the sleeping men around him are dead. But, with the bugle horn, Henry realizes the mistake. His friend, Wilson comes to talk with him. Right away Henry notices a change in Wilson. He is more quiet and reserved. They discuss how they lost half their troop the day before. Some of the men had wandered into other troops and fought alongside them like Henry did. He does not disabuse Wilson of this idea and goes on to tell him Jim Conklin is dead.
Henry remembers that he has the letter Wilson had given him. He thought to return it, then changed his mind. Maybe he should hold on to it as an insurance against any further questions Wilson might have about his activities of the day before. He thinks about his flight and disdains all the other men who ran when he did. They ran haphazardly in terror whereas he ran with dignity. After all, he was “chosen by the gods and doomed to greatness.” He was invincible. Henry was roused from his musings by Wilson asking for his letter back. After returning it, Henry continues to daydream, but, now the dreams are about the stories he will have when he returns home, and how he will not glorify war.
Soon, the troop is moved to relieve another troop in the woods. Henry is getting fed up with his commanders and begins to complain, but stops when he fears someone listening might point out his flight the day before. As Henry watches the enemy make their way towards his troop, he begins to fume. They are treating him like a rat being chased by a cat. His battle anger begins to rise. He fires and reloads, firing again, refusing to retreat. When the enemy starts to fall back, Henry goes after them, firing all the while.
Finally, one of his comrades stops him saying there is nothing left to shoot, he has chased them all away. The commander is thrilled and praises Henry saying if he had more of him the war would be won. When Henry comes down from his battle rage, he realizes what happened and is a little amazed at himself.
During a lull in the battle, they realize one of their men is wounded. Wilson offers to go for water to help the wounded man. When canteens are thrust upon him for fill ups, Henry offers to go along to help. When they reach where the stream should have been, and wasn’t, the two stop to watch the battle from their vantage point.
They see a general on horseback almost trample a wounded man. They overhear the general speaking to his next in command. He asks what troops he can spare for a major run. The officer names Henry’s troop because “they fight like little mule drivers. I can spare them best of any.” As the officer was riding away, the general tells him not to expect any of his mule drivers to come back. Henry and Wilson are disheartened. They had been so proud of their accomplishments, only to learn their commanders had no respect for them. When they return to camp with the news of the new orders coming their way, the two decide to keep the opinions of the general and officers to themselves.
The troop goes forward. Twice they are paused but, the lieutenant pushes them on to battle. Soon Henry focuses on the flag going before him and decides to just follow it. Thirsty and exhausted, Henry continues to run into the battle. Soon he sees the flag falter and fall. He and Wilson both run up to the fallen flag bearer, grab the flag and continue the charge. But, as they run, the two notice their troop falling back. While the lieutenant is yelling at them to continue, the men are looking for cover in the trees.
Henry manages to get the flag from Wilson and tries to spur the men on to meet the enemy. He is filled with rage and wants to achieve victory as a way to get his revenge on the officer who called them mule drivers. But, he is afraid that even with all his coaxing, it is not to be. When the battle begins his troop manages to put up a good fight. As they push the enemy back, Henry’s troop begins to feel more enthusiastic. The troop feels quite proud of themselves until they realize they hardly achieved any ground. Also, they hear themselves being berated by the officers. But, in all that, Henry and Wilson are praised for their fighting by the colonel.
Henry enters into the next battle with a renewed determination. He would keep going no matter what happened. As men fell all around him, Henry continues on. He is carrying the flag and fighting. His thoughts are on his corpse lying on the battlefield and the officer who called them mule drivers seeing it. He pictured that being a just revenge.
Soon, Henry realized his regiment was growing weaker and thinning out. The only two he knew were still going was Wilson and the lieutenant. Trying to rally the troops for a full charge, the lieutenant is riding around in the back, urging them on. After a quick calculation, Henry realizes that moving forward is the only choice. If they stay there they will all die, if they retreat, it would gladden the enemy too much, and also the hated officers and general. When he turns to the men expecting to have to convince them, he sees they have all come to the same conclusion. They charge forward.
When they reach the enemy, Henry’s regiment are victorious. The enemy retreats and they capture four prisoners. Also, Henry and Wilson see the other flag bearer go down and they both dive for the enemy’s flag. Wilson retrieves it, successfully ending the battle.
After a brief rest, while Henry and Wilson discuss the battle, more orders come down. The troop must head back to the river. As Henry walks he contemplates his actions of the day before. Although he is still ashamed and expects the face of the tattered man will be in his mind always, he puts it all behind him. He dreams of a future past the war. He has gone from a boy with dreams of glory to a man with dreams of peace.
Henry Fleming – Henry is a farm boy in his late teens. He enters the army with dreams of glory. He has wide swings of emotion and moods, form self-confidence, and pride to fear and self-hatred. Although he can be brave in battle, he is incapable of accurately assessing his motives (usually either vanity or fear) and he can’t judge his own conduct. He romanticizes his exploits. Quickly discounting his mistakes and quick to place the blame on others. He thinks he is better than his comrades and holds himself away from them emotionally and sometimes physically. Throughout the book, Crane refers to him as the youth so as to make him the example of all young men fighting their first battle caught in the grip of internal and external forces which they neither understand nor are able to control.
Jim Conklin – the antithesis of Henry. He is older and wiser. He is tall and is a natural leader. Whereas Henry and Wilson complain a lot Jim is quiet and does his duty. He is a pragmatist. He advises Henry to lighten the load he is carrying, all he needs to do is eat and shoot. When Henry asks him if he fears he will run, Jim tells him that he knows he will run when everyone else does and fight when everyone else does. Jim is the kind of soldier who follows orders unquestionably. After he is wounded and dying, he travels quite a while with a grievous wound in his side. When he dies, he does it quietly, while Henry, who is with him, rails at the sky.
Wilson – Loud, young recruit in Henry’s regiment. An untested know it all who boasts of his bravery in order to cover his fear. Crane refers to him throughout the first half of the book as the “loud soldier”. He shows that Henry is not the only recruit afraid of dying. When he gives Henry a letter to deliver to his mother in case he doesn’t make it, he shows his youth and vulnerability. During battle Wilson is transformed from an immature braggart to a quiet, self-assured, fearless soldier. When Henry runs, Wilson stays to fight. When Henry returns after the first battle and is wounded, Wilson tends to his wound and gives him his blanket. He and Henry become even closer friends as they fight alongside each other. He and Henry move in battle as a matched team. They both go for the fallen Union flag and recover the Confederate flag.
The Tattered Soldier – Henry meets him while trying to escape the front lines. The man has been wounded twice and is probably dying. Continually asking Henry where his wound is, he becomes Henry’s conscience, especially after Henry leaves the man in the woods to die in order to keep his attempted desertion a secret. Throughout the rest of the book, every time Henry begins to feel arrogant, he remembers the tattered man.
Stephen Crane Biography
Stephen Crane (1871 – 1900) was an American novelist and poet. He was born in Newark, New Jersey and went to school at the Lafayette College and Syracuse University, but had little interest in school and left to pursue his dream of writing. He had been writing since he was four years old, and was published at sixteen. He moved to New York to become a reporter. He became a freelance reporter in the slums and wrote about his impoverished existence in his first book, Maggie, a Girl on the Streets (1893). Although it was praised by other writers, it didn’t do well commercially.
His next book, The Red Badge of Courage (1895) did so well that he won international recognition. Although never having been in the military himself, Crane’s depictions were so realistic that he was immediately courted by American and foreign newspapers who wanted to hire him as a war correspondent during the Greco-Turkish War (1897) and the Spanish American War (1898). While traveling from the United States to Cuba in 1896, Crane was shipwrecked. His suffering before rescue was believed to be what brought on tuberculosis that led to his death in 1900. He used the shipwreck as fodder for his book, The Open Boat and Other Stories (1898). In 1897, Crane retired to England, where he had numerous affairs with married women and scandalized the gossipers in America and England.
In 1896, just before boarding the boat that would almost kill him, Stephen Crane met Cora Taylor. He was twenty-five years old and she was thirty-one and married. After he returned they met up in Cuba and began an affair that lasted the rest of his life. She proclaimed herself as Cora Crane and was his common law wife, without ending her marriage to a British military officer. She was an American businesswoman who owned a nightclub and a bordello. She also did some writing and was recognized at the first woman war correspondent when she joined Crane in Cuba.
Crane was a prolific writer in his short life. He was one of the first Americans to use the naturalistic style of writing. His portrayals are pessimistic and brutal, yet he shows a sympathetic understanding of his characters. Crane was also an innovator in verse techniques with his poetry. He published two volumes; The Black Riders and Other Lines (1895), and War is Kind and Other Poems (1899). Both are important early examples of experimental free verse. Most of the themes in his novels are defined for its distinct dialect and scenery. His use of description makes the scenes stand out and touch the reader emotionally. In most of his works, social exile, spiritual questions and fear play major roles.
Although he died at the age of 28, Stephen Crane had a huge impact on the literary world. He was friend with great writers such as Joseph Conrad and Henry James. Ernest Hemingway is one of the writer of the twentieth century who was influenced by his work. Crane is thought to have given inspiration to the Modernists movement and the Imagists.