A regiment of Union soldiers, encamped by a river, discuss the rumor
that after weeks of boredom they will finally see action. A tall soldier,
Jim Conklin spreads the news. Others, skeptical, argue that they will never
move. Henry Fleming, a young private, listens to the rumors, then crawls into
his hut to examine his feelings. Will he run in battle? He reviews his past
ideas of glory, his enlistment, his mother's last words, his excitement when
he left for Washington. He reflects that now he feels like a small part of
a vast blue demonstration, his most important idea being personal comfort.
He searches his soul, wondering if he is a coward. Jim Conklin enters his
tent and Henry questions him about his feelings. Might he run? Jim says he
might, but if others stand, he will stand too. Henry feels vaguely comforted.
The rumor proves premature, and Henry is increasingly troubled about his reactions
under fire. He is confused by his companions' attitudes, sometimes believing
them heroes, sometimes suspecting them of being miserable like himself. The
others are noisy, talkative, full of pranks, but Henry does not join them.
Wilson, a loud soldier, accuses him of being blue and speaks with relish of
the coming battle. Asked whether he will run, Wilson brags of his courage;
and when Henry probes more deeply he becomes angry and stalks off. Henry lies
in bed, imagining himself running while the others are cool and brave.
The next morning the troops move and Henry finds himself boxed in by hurrying
men under fire. His feeling of panic and claustrophobia gives way first to
curiosity about the aimlessness of the battle, then to rage against the stupidity
of the generals. Gradually his anger is replaced by an unreal, detached feeling
that he should not make so much fuss about getting killed, that it does not
matter; in fact the best thing to do would be to get killed at once. As the
battle rages, Henry forgets his plans to get killed. He is surprised when
Wilson, almost in tears, confesses that he expects to die and gives Henry
a packet of letters for his family. Soon soldiers come running from the battle,
but Henry has not seen the monster that caused their flight. He resolves to
stay and get a view of it; then perhaps he will run. Moments of waiting follow,
then a cry of "Here they come!" and Henry becomes a cog in the machine,
loading, firing, reloading, conscious only of the work he has to do. He feels
a red rage, not so much against the enemy as against the battle itself. He
moves as in a dream, but as he takes from his battle trance he regards himself
with satisfaction, feeling that he has passed the test of courage and is a
fine fellow. At that moment the attack is increased. Henry, seized by blind
panic, turns and runs, growing more frightened as he runs, convinced that
all is lost. He overhears a message that the line is holding after all.
The book starts out with a new regiment for the Union army waiting around
for some fighting. Jim Conklin, a friend of the main character, Henry Fleming,
hears some rumors about their next movements. He tells the other soldiers
of the rumors telling them that theyre going to go around the enemy
and attack them from behind. Sure enough, a few days later, they start marching
and they attack. This is the first battle for the regiment so a few soldiers,
including Henry Fleming, desert the regiment.