Alex Li's Reviews > The Red Badge of Courage

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
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Nov 15, 11

Read in November, 2011

As The Red Badge of Courage opens, members of a newly recruited regiment is debating a fresh rumor they are finally going to move out on the next day and engage the enemy. One young soldier, named Henry Fleming, does not engage in the debate and instead reflects on what will become of him when he gets to battle. He enlisted because he wanted to be a hero, thinking of Greek epics. His own mother, however, was not interested in such ideas, and discouraged him from enlisting. When he finally did, she did not have an impassioned speech for him. She merely says that if he is ever in a situation where he will be killed or do something wrong, he should go with his feelings. With these words, Henry left his home and entered his army duty.
He had not seen his foes yet, save a conversation with one across a riverbank late one night. The veterans tell them of gray, mad, rampaging hordes; but he does not trust their tales very much. However, he does not care who he fights, just that he will not run away. He is panicked at the proposition. He talks with other soldiers the tall one (named Jim Conklin) and the loud one (named Wilson). Both believe in themselves enough to say that they will fight as hard as they can, but neither goes as far to say that they definitely will not run. The regiment does not move out on the rumored day, but soon thereafter. They march through other Union armies, dressed in blue. Their youth shows, as their uniforms still seem so new they gleam. Soon after, though, the tall soldier kicks Henry awake. The regiment is gathered and the men run down wood roads. During this time, Henry's thoughts are mixed and various. He feels that he should have never enlisted and misses his home. The next moment, he feels the overwhelming need to see a battle taking place. After he does so, upon cresting a hill and looking at a skirmish down below, he watches in quiet fascination, but does not desire to participate. Then, after the men march more and he sees his first dead body, he begins to suspect that they are being led to their slaughter, to be sacrificed to a red war god. He wants to tell his mates, but is afraid of their jibes and scoffing in return. Soon, the regiment is facing an actual conflict. Wilson, the loud soldier, is so certain he will die that he gives Henry a packet of letters to send to his family. As they line up to fight, rumors fly again about the state of their army. Smoke and noise from guns rise around them. Bullets and shells whistle towards them. A regiment in front, already engaging the enemy, is beaten and flees the battleground. The youth imagines that they were beaten by a monster. He resolves to get a view of this monster, even if he very well may flee himself. The regiment is soon engaged. They work feverishly, firing and reloading. The smoke chokes them and makes their eyes red. Henry feels full of rage. Men fall occasionally around him. Soon, the enemy retreats. The men relax. Henry feels satisfied that he has overcome the trials of war. However, the men have not rested for long when the Rebels attack again. They fight fiercely once more. Henry feels different this time. He feels that the monster of war, a red and green dragon, will come through the gray smoke and swallow him. After a few men around him flee, the youth's own fear gets the better of him. He drops his weapon and runs from the battle. As he goes through the forest and past cannons, he is sure that the dragon is pursuing him and that these others fighting against it are fools, going like lemmings to their death. However, as he finally stops by an officer, he finds that his regiment won the battle. He is thunderstruck. He realizes that he has done something very wrong, though he tries to justify it to himself that it was through superior powers of observation. He imagines the insults he will have to bear when returning to camp and attempts to get as far away from them and the monster of war as possible. He walks into a forest. The noises of the conflict gradually become fainter. He feels more at peace, that his actions are more in congress with nature. However, as he goes, he encounters a corpse, with a faded uniform. The glassy-eyed stare grabs him for a moment in fear. Then the youth slowly turns away, creeping from the body; then he turns and runs away as fast as he can. He goes through the forest and into the open. He finds a road and walking upon it a procession of wounded soldiers. They are suffering and moaning as they limp down the road. A tattered soldier, wounded twice, tries to talk to Henry about the battle and where the youth has been shot. These questions bring his embarrassment and guilt out. He tries to run away in the crowd. He eventually runs into Jim Conklin, the tall soldier, wounded and near death. Henry tries to help him, but his friend is too close to death. The tattered man comes up to assist as well, but Jim runs off into the fields, where he staggers and falls over dead. The tattered man tries to talk more with Henry, telling him stories of men he knows in the army and how he became wounded. Again, the man asks Henry where his wounds are located. The youth tells him to not bother him, and slips away from the man, leaving him blubbering and wondering about in the field. As he continues on, Henry eventually encounters a retreating band of carts and horses. This makes him feel temporarily good; if the whole army is retreating, his flight will not be so suspicious. However, soon a column of troops comes up the road. Henry looks at these men as brave, and he soon gets the will to fight. However, more thoughts come into his head. He considers that he is low and guilty. His comrades will see him as a worm. These thoughts make him thirst and ache. He tries to justify his flight in his head, but his emotions betray him. He wishes he were dead.
Soon, the column comes running out of the grove into which they marched. All is chaos and pandemonium. Henry is shocked to see that these heroic figures have been so quickly turned into scampering animals. He tries to stop one to ask him what happened, but only blubbers his words. The man hits him on the head with his rifle. Henry is dazed and injured. He wonders in the dark until a kind man helps him find his regiment. There, no harsh words await him. Wilson and another soldier bandage his wound, which Henry claims is from a bullet. The others do not seem to care that much just that he gets attention and rest, which he does. When he awakes, he finds that his friend, Wilson, is not so much the loud soldier he once was. He takes special care of Henry, is reflective, and breaks up fights around him. The youth notices this change from irritation to tranquility. However, he feels that he has a weapon against his friend the packet of letters he gave in haste at the beginning of the battle the day before. Fearful of being discovered as a coward, he imagines that with this packet he can ward off any shame that questioning from Wilson would give him. However, Wilson sheepishly asks for the packet before Henry can do anything. While he maintains a haughty air, the youth can say no barbs against his friend as he hands the envelope back to him. The regiment today moves from one embankment to another, always taking cover and seeing some of battle, but not actually participating in it. The youth is now talkative, perhaps overly so. He tries to show his pride, and is silenced for it; for he knows that he in fact fled battle yesterday and was not shot. A sarcastic soldier cuts him down and later his lieutenant tells him to stop talking and start fighting. The regiment does this soon enough. They are attacked by the Rebels and repel them. This battle, Henry fights as if he were crazed; shooting at them long after the battle is finished. This makes some of the men look at him with curiosity. Henry regards himself as a barbarian. Soon, Wilson and Henry take an opportunity to get water for the regiment. After they search for a stream unsuccessfully, they encounter a general and his staff in a road. In the midst of the conversation, they hear that their regiment of "mule drivers" is going to charge the enemy, with perhaps many casualties. They return to their fellow soldiers with this news, but do not tell them that the general doubted that they will survive. The charge begins soon. It takes the regiment a minute, but they are soon running with haste at the enemy. Many are shot in the process. Henry now feels that he sees things clearly. He and the other men go into frenzy. But eventually, they stop. The lieutenant yells, screams, and curses at them to continue. Wilson breaks the spell by firing his rifle. Others soon follow his lead. Soon, Henry sees the flag of his army, which revives him. As his color sergeant is soon shot, he leaps for the flag, along with Wilson, to hold it for himself. The battle rages on, with Henry holding the flag aloft. The men dig in slightly, as their numbers diminish. Henry is full of rage. He is thinking little, only feeling his anger. The lieutenant and Henry are both trying to get the men to continue. Soon, the officer sees that the men in gray are trying to advance onto their position. Automatically, the regiment fires into them, causing the enemy to retreat. Satisfied, they go back to their lines. When they return, they are greeted with jeers from the veterans and reprimands from the higher officers. They stopped short of an impressive charge, they learn. The men, who had been so proud of themselves, find that their efforts are not seen as sufficient, let alone brave. Soon, though, Wilson and Henry here a story through one of their fellow soldiers that a colonel and lieutenant were discussing their particular prowess in battle. This fills their hearts with pride. Soon, the battle is on again. The men in blue charge the men in gray once more. Again, the regiment finds itself in open territory, peppered by bullets. Henry is intent on standing upright, keeping the flag strong, though the men around him are still falling. Then the order comes to charge. The men to not shirk; they fix bayonets and wildly charge toward the gray smoke of the enemy's guns. On the other side, the youth knows, are the men who made this. He must see them. As they approach the enemy lines, the opposing flag comes into view. Wilson leaps at it and grabs it from the hands of the just-shot color sergeant. There are four prisoners of war, all looking very young and very human in their own faces. The men in blue are victorious. Henry, upon walking away with the regiment, first feels pride in his accomplishments of battle. Then he remembers his flight and his treatment of the tattered man, and guilt riles up in him again. He is concerned his mate will see it. However, he eventually lets this go. He now sees his previous thoughts on war and battle as silly and is happy to find himself doing so. He has made it through the trials of battle, from the red and the black, and is changed into a man. The gold (instead of the yellow) of the sun streams through the clouds as he marches with his regiment.
As a whole, I think that The Red Badge of Courage is a great book. I think the book is perfect for those who really like history and violence at the same time.
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