It is often called Americas first great war novel, yet
Stephen Cranes The Red Badge of Courage is more than just a tale about
the civil war. In the course of a few battles from this bloody conflict, Crane
shows us the maturing of a youth, Henry Fleming. We meet Henry as a naïve
young man, seeking glory, yet unprepared for life on the front lines, and
leave him much wiser and more mature. Henry, hardened and tested by the war,
grows and matures, finally learning the true meaning of courage.
We are introduced to Henry as he prepares to enlist in the Union army, leaving
his mother and their farm home behind. The young Fleming lives a sheltered
and protected life seen by his mothers protective warning: "You
watch out, Henry, an take good care of yerself in this fighting business
. . . Dont go a-thinkin you can lick the hull rebel army at the
start, because yeh cant" (5). His delusions of grandeur, "His
busy mind [drawing]for him large pictures extravagant in color, lurid with
breathless deeds" are brought to light when we see his impatient thoughts
toward his mothers farewell, and his heroic feelings as he visits his
Henry quickly finds out that the 304th infantry is not as romantic, nor as
comfortable, as he had expected. The soldiers feel bored and restless; the
green regimen has yet to face a battle, and Henry feels insecure and apprehensive.
He wrestles internally about whether he will fight heroically or turn and
run, and fears that, unlike himself, ". . . all of the untried men possess
a great and correct confidence" (12).
The first battle proves the first test of Henrys character. We see
him caught up in the skirmish and its excitement, and at first fighting well.
However, after his regimen thinks the battle is over, it starts up again,
this time ebbing in the other direction. Henrys insecurity and inexperience
cause him to panic, throw down his rifle, and flee "like a rabbit"
(46). The youth tries to justify his actions by telling himself that his unit
would have surely died. When he later learns that the battle had been won,
his justification is shattered and he pins his cowardice on the actions of
his comrades, just like a little child: They did it first, and I just
Feeling sorry for himself, and seemingly lost, Henry wanders out into the
woods, where again his youthful insecurity emerges. He stumbles upon the badly
decomposed body of a fellow union soldier, and panics, becoming even more
disoriented. Fleming meets up with his friend Jim Conklin and watches as he
painfully dies. Henry realizes war has a side he had not earlier envisioned,
Henrys character takes a painful turn for the better when a retreating
Union soldier brains him, literally knocking sense into him. He finally returns
to his camp and, to his surprise, is not made fun of for his retreat, but
given respect and sympathy for his war injury. Although childishly
deceitful in not correcting his fellow soldiers mistakes about his injury,
Henry gains his self-respect back, and temporarily forgets of his cowardice.
A more abrupt change in character, fostered by the confidence he has just
gained, comes the second time Henry enters battle. Able to forget his previous
cowardice, the youth acts on bare instinct and fights valiantly, so much so
that he must be told to stop shooting much after the battle has ended. Henry
gains new confidence after his superiors commend him for his actions, but
this is somewhat shadowed by the immature bragging he does afterward.
Henry, while far from being wise, becomes mature at the end of the book.
His attitude and character are a far cry from the selfish youth Crane introduced
in the beginning of the book. Henrys concepts of war are shattered,
but in the process his character will be strengthened.