Just over 30 years after the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, a young reporter who had never heard a shot fired in anger managed to produce a literary classic that not only captured the intensity and confusion of the bitter fighting, but also explored for the first time the huge psychological pressures faced by men in battle.
All of this is captured in the tale of one man, Henry Fleming, who to his shame and humiliation finds himself fleeing the battlefield. Gaining his ‘red badge’ – a wound accidentally inflicted by another panicked soldier – he re-enters the fighting the next day, to be hailed as a hero, having found, in the words of American writer Adam Gopnik, ‘a kind of courage that is indistinguishable from insanity’.
Stephen Crane was a writer from an early age, publishing his first novel, Maggie: a girl of the streets, in 1893, a debut that signalled his focus on realistic social issues.
Serialised in newspapers in 1894 and published fully the following year, his most famous novel, The Red Badge of Courage, took the world by storm, going through ten editions in its first year and drawing favourable comparisons with the works of Zola, Tolstoy, and Victor Hugo. Conversely, at least one critic took exception to its portrayal of desertion in battle, calling it ‘a vicious satire upon American soldiers and American armies’.
The protagonist, Henry Fleming, enters the book on the approach to battle, musing anxiously on how he will perform in action, and reflecting on how he had impetuously enlisted against the wishes of his mother. Referred to through most of the book as ‘the youth’, Henry stands for anybody who finds themselves suddenly catapulted from a peaceful life with family into the violent world of conflict.
Unlike many military writers, Crane does not offer a panoramic view of the battle, swooping from one viewpoint to another and exploring the problems of command. It is instead very much a soldiers’ view, confined to Henry and his immediate comrades. Officers appear, galloping up and issuing orders that are frequently confused and agitated, and serve to fuel anxious speculation on the part of the men:
A hatless general pulled his dripping horse to a stand near the colonel of the 304th. He shook his fist in the other’s face. ‘You’ve got to hold ’em back!’ he shouted, savagely; ‘you’ve got to hold ’em back!’ In his agitation the colonel began to stammer, ‘A-all r-right, General, all right, by Gawd!’
The regiment opens fire at a half-seen enemy, and the youth throws himself into firing and reloading with the rest. ‘He became not a man but a member… welded into a common personality.’ The enemy pulls back, and Henry feels the exultation of passing the test of battle.
But his relief is short-lived – the Confederates resume their attack, and men who moments before were resolute and firm begin to falter. ‘A man near him who up to this time had been working feverishly at his rifle suddenly stopped and ran with howls.’ More follow, and suddenly Henry has joined them:
Directly he began to speed toward the rear in great leaps. His rifle and cap were gone. His unbuttoned coat bulged in the wind. The flap of his cartridge box bobbed wildly, and his canteen, by its slender cord, swung out behind. On his face was all the horror of all those things he imagined.
Crane’s observation of human behaviour is remarkably astute: men are not simply classified as heroes or cowards, the instinct for self-preservation in the face of extreme danger is the most natural one imaginable, and the remarkable thing is that men can overcome this for even short periods. Much of modern military training is focused on dealing with the fear response and working with it to create resilience in stress.
Henry’s flight is halted when he hears cheering and a general commenting that the line held. Immediately, his justification for running is gone. He was not betrayed into a doomed mission, and his action, which seemed part of a collective response, is exposed as an individual failure. He feels deep shame and also self-pity.
In the chaos and confusion of the battlefield, Henry meets many men without their units, but he is most affected by the wounded soldiers he falls in with. One asks ‘Where yeh hit?’, and we are told ‘He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage.’
He encounters another panic-stricken body of men, and, in trying to detain one of them, is hit on the head with a rifle-butt. It is the central irony of this book that Henry’s own ‘red badge of courage’ is not received in battle but from an accidental collision with a fellow soldier in the same plight as his own. This leads directly to his return to his unit’s encampment, and their unquestioning acceptance of him as a fighter who has received an honourable wound.
The following day, the battle resumes. The unit is ordered forward, and a rejuvenated Henry Fleming fights like a ‘war devil’, blazing away with his rifle and eventually taking over the regiment’s battle standard when the colour bearer is shot down. This transformation ‘from zero to hero’ may strike modern readers as forced and artificial. But Crane’s narrative doesn’t play to conventional tropes of heroism and cowardice.
First, there is extraordinary, graphic detail of the horrors of battle:
The regiment bled extravagantly. Grunting bundles of blue began to drop. The orderly sergeant of the youth’s company was shot through the cheeks. Its supports being injured, his jaw hung afar down, disclosing in the wide cavern of his mouth a pulsing mass of blood and teeth.
Second, it appears that the youth’s courage takes a form of mania that robs him of reason almost as much as his earlier panic. Shooting at empty ground after all others have stopped, he is recalled to his senses: ‘He looked bewildered for a moment. Then there appeared upon the glazed vacancy of his eyes a diamond point of intelligence. “Oh,” he said, comprehending.’
Finally, although Crane refers to Henry reaching manhood as part of his experience, the closing lines of the book portray war as a grotesque aberration:
He had rid himself of the red sickness of battle. The sultry nightmare was in the past. He had been an animal blistered and sweating in the heat and pain of war. He turned now with a lover’s thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks – an existence of soft and eternal peace.
It is assumed that Crane’s novel is based on the events of the Battle of Chancellorsville, which took place from 30 April to 6 May 1863. Certainly, he was exposed to stories told by veterans of the battle from the 124th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and the extended and confused progress of the conflict in the book matches what we know about Chancellorsville.
In spite of the tactical Union success described in the book, the engagement saw an inferior Confederate force run circles around a much larger enemy force, with more than 17,000 Union soldiers killed, wounded, captured, or missing, against 12,764 Confederates.
The loss of Confederate General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson to a friendly fire incident was a grievous blow, however, and directly contributed to the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg two months later.
It is no surprise that The Red Badge of Courage, often described as ‘cinematic’, has inspired two films, released in 1951 and 1974 respectively. But it is Crane’s novel itself that remains one of the most vivid and extraordinary accounts of the American Civil War.
Born: 1 November 1871 – Died: 5 June 1900
Born in Newark, New Jersey, Stephen Crane was the 14th child of a Methodist minister and a mother who campaigned for temperance and women’s suffrage. He worked as a journalist from an early age. The year after the publication of The Red Badge of Courage, Crane appeared as a witness in the trial of a suspected prostitute, which caused a scandal. He later accepted an offer to work in Cuba as a war correspondent. The vessel he travelled on, SS Commodore, sank off the coast of Florida, an ordeal he survived and later wrote about in an 1897 short story, ‘The Open Boat’. Poor health plagued him, however, as he worked in Greece and England, with his partner Cora Taylor. He died of tuberculosis in a sanatorium in Germany’s Black Forest.