Erik Graff's Reviews > The Red Badge of Courage

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
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May 20, 14

bookshelves: literature
Recommended to Erik by: no one
Recommended for: kids
Read in January, 1961, read count: 1

I read this edition sometime during grade school, having heard of it somewhere--not difficult during the Centennial when the papers, radio, television and movies were full of it. Although now so much time has passed that I mix up its story with the one by Bierce about the wounded soldiers crawling for water at night, the part about the older man asking Henry about his wounds and Henry's embarrassment struck me deeply at the time. Children know embarrassment!

So big a deal was the Centennial for the kids at the Oak Ridge Elementary School that we celebrated it almost daily. Our Meadowdale community of identical (except for color) houses for veterans of WWII and Korea was filled with kids, so many that they built the school especially for us. Being carved out of farmland and woods in unincorporated Kane County, Illinois, our winding streets described an oasis of civilization surrounded by wooded hills, creeks and abandoned fields.

Below my house was one of the many creeks, alongside which was the road the school was on. Going one way it led to a quarry. Going the other it led to a huge drainpipe which connected to the development's storm sewers and debouched in a field to become a creek again to the east of us, right behind the houses at the end of Butte Lane, where our home was. There what had been productive farmland had been plowed for houses that were never built. The field had gone to weed, hills of clay and an enormous pile of long-dead trees in its center. The creek itself cut deeply between clay ridges where it exited the pipe. There, on its western bank, were the headquarters of our Federal forces.

The rest, the field, the log pile and a large clay hill alongside side it, belonged to the Confederacy, the forces of which far exceeded our own. For some reason few wanted to be Unionists. For me, it was a matter of principle. I was against slavery and at that early age I believed that what the Civil War had been about. Interestingly, since we lived in federally subsidized housing, some of the kids were black, but no one on either side ever thought about treating them as slaves or freedmen and women and no one ever made a racial slur.

The richer kids had various civil war paraphenalia, usually the hats which were available at the Meadowdale Shopping Center. Guns, however, were not used except for show. They were, after all, only toys. The fighting went on with rocks and pebbles, clumps of mud or dirt, sticks and fists. Usually it was restrained. We Federals would occupy our high ground on one side of the creek. The Confederate hordes would occupy the other side. Projectiles of all sorts would be lobbed in high arcs, there being plenty of time to step aside, cursing.

The only real violence was when numbers were low and one side or the other decided to sneak into the enemy territory. This was the real fun. The creek-defined boundary was pretty long (one would never think of entering the area of the enemy another way!), the weeds were high, so one could crouch and crawl across if a portion was unoccupied. A few, maybe four, of us Federals explored the inside of the log pile one late afternoon after a lengthy crawl across the field. The Rebels had been using it for some time, clearing paths in three dimensions, clearing little chambers within. Exploring, cracking branches, talking too loudly, we were discovered, the pile surrounded by superior numbers, and captured.

The Confederates took us to their Andersonville: a hand-dug cave on the side of the big hill beside the woodpile. It wasn't much, just big enough for the four of us to huddle in for protection as the Rebels rolled and tossed rocks down upon us from the peak. Then, disaster! One of my comrades had stuck his head out to say he had to get home for dinner and WHAM one of the rocks hit him full on, drawing blood and tears.

A bit of shouting from our muddy hole to the victors apprised them of the situation. The game was called off for the night and everyone left, me and my three unhurt comrades escorting our fellow to his home.

That was the worst injury I can recall. Although tears were common enough, bawling could normally be suppressed except by the smallest kids. Consequently, we were rather surprised when Ms. Loose, the school's principal, visited all six grades the following Monday to announce that henceforth the civil war was over in Meadowdale.

And it was. We were an obedient lot. The playing went on, of course, but the fighting ended. In any case, it was really more fun to walk the storm sewers for miles under the streets, ever guided by the dim glow beneath curbside drains, ever on watch for the giant rats said to inhabit the underworld.
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