the lull in their portion of the battle, Henry and Wilson go
in search of a stream in order to find some drinking water.
They do not find a stream and start to make their way back.
They take the opportunity to observe the battle, which continues
fiercely. They overhear the general of their division talking
with another officer. The general fears the enemy will break
through at a place called Whiterside, unless he can get reinforcements.
The officer says he can spare none of his men except those of
the 304th regiment, which is the regiment to which Henry and
Wilson belong. The officer refers to them as “mule drivers,”
because they were recruited from farms. The general approves
the plan, and says as the officer rides off that he does not
expect many of these “mule drivers” to return from
the tough mission he has given them. Henry feels angry at the
impersonal, indifferent way such things are decided. He and
Wilson return to their regiment and give the news that they
will shortly be asked to make a charge. The men are skeptical
at first of how Henry and Wilson know this, but then they accept
it. The officers bustle around, preparing the regiment for battle.
begins. Henry plays his part with fierce determination. The
regiment takes many casualties as the battle intensifies, but
the men continue to advance. After some while they tire and
the advance halts. They continue to take casualties. The lieutenant
and the other officers urge them forward again. They advance
into withering fire from the enemy, and then halt again. The
lieutenant bellows that they cannot stay there; if they do they
will all be killed. He tries to force Henry to continue the
advance. At first Henry protests, but then he, the lieutenant
and Wilson rush on ahead of the other men. They urge the others
to follow, and soon the whole regiment is on the move again,
facing intense hostile fire. The sergeant who carries the flag
is killed, and Henry and Wilson grab the flag from his corpse.
These chapters are full of insights into the strange, contradictory
nature of war. Henry for example notes with distaste the impersonal,
unfeeling way in which a general is willing to sacrifice men.
He thinks they are being used just like brooms to sweep up the
woods. No attention is paid to their humanity. And yet when
the battle starts and the men advance, Henry feels an unusual
sense of being fully alive. All his senses function in a very
acute way. It is almost as if he is lifted to another state
of consciousness, so clear does everything become:
to the youth that he saw everything. Each blade of the green
grass was bold and clear. He thought that he was aware of
every change in the thin, transparent vapor that floated idly
in sheets. The brown or gray trunks of the trees showed each
roughness of their surfaces (ch. 19, p. 119).
seems to comprehend everything about his comrades as they go
into battle. And yet, curiously, he is also ignorant. He does
not know why he is there. He is in a strange state of knowledge
and ignorance at the same time, and he notes this condition
in the other men too. They too find the situation incomprehensible,
but they are caught up in a kind of group consciousness that
lifts them beyond selfishness and makes them a formidable fighting
force. Beyond the reach of reason, they are more like animals,
also great heroism in this horrific environment. Henry as well
as Wilson emerge as men of great courage and leadership. There
can be few moment in literature as moving as when the two of
them wrest the Union flag from the dead sergeant. But the moment
is also grotesque, as the description of the dead sergeant shows.
This is a realistic war novel, not an exercise in sentimental