The Red Badge of Courage

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Authors: Joyce Moss and George Wilson
Date: 1997
Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Work overview
Pages: 6
Content Level: (Level 4)

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The Red Badge of Courage

by Stephen Crane

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A novel set on the East Coast of the United States, probably in 1863; published in 1895.


A naive young man who joins the Union army during the Civil War confronts not only the Confederates but also his own fears and romantic notions of heroism. In battle, he faces the grim reality of warfare and gains self-knowledge.

Born six years after the close of the Civil War, Stephen Crane was fascinated by the subject and read all materials he could find on the conflict. He found, however, that the accounts of battle were rather superficial; based solely on action, they lacked feeling. As a writer keenly attuned to human experience and emotions, Crane wanted to explore the soldiers’ emotions during battle. He created The Red Badge of Courage to expose the human side of warfare. Written when Crane was twenty-three, the novel is a realistic account of a young man’s struggle to come to terms with the brutality of war and his own fear of death and cowardice, as contrasted with romantic notions of glory through battle. Published just before the nation began the Spanish-American War, The Red Badge of Courage served as testimony to the horrors of battle on any front.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Civil War

The Civil War began in April 1861 and lasted through May 1865. The conflict between the Northern and Southern sections of the United States arose in 1860 when seven Southern states seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America. While the North fought to preserve the Union, the South fought for independence. Though often romanticized, the war was one of the bloodiest and most divisive events in U.S. history. The conflict claimed the lives of more than half a million soldiers, wounded four hundred thousand, and cost $20 billion.

The Civil War raged for four years, with little movement toward victory on one side or the other for the first two years. Though the Northern or Union army outmanned the Confederate army nearly three to one (2.2 million Union troops vs. 800,000 Confederate troops), it lacked strong leadership and a cohesive battle plan. The Confederates, on the other hand, had the gifted General Robert E. Lee at the helm and the strength of conviction on their side. Southerners believed firmly in their right to secede and—much like the colonists of the American Revolution—fought for their right to independent rule.

Before the issuance of the Émancipation Proclamation in January 1863, the North had little moral ground or rationale to bolster their effort except for preservation of the Union. For this and other reasons, patriotism in the North waned Page 309  |  Top of Articleafter the onset of battle. This aspect of the war is illustrated in The Red Badge of Courage in Crane’s account of discontented Union soldiers who lack confidence in their leaders. The novel depicts the Union regiments in constant disarray, with troops making little or no military gains despite the ever growing body count.

After President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which outlawed slavery in all areas in rebellion against the Union, there was an abrupt shift in the war and an increase in momentum for the Union army. The North began to make significant gains on the battlefield, and public support for its war effort sharply increased. Morale lifted among the Northerners, who could view themselves as champions of abolition and freedom fighters.

Poor drafted

President Lincoln instituted the first military draft in U.S. history during the Civil War. First passed in 1862, the law as rewritten in 1863 allowed men to buy their way out of service by paying $300 or hiring replacement soldiers. The inclusion of this loophole for wealthier citizens meant that the Union army was comprised primarily of the poor and lower classes. Crane makes note of this in the novel, describing a dead soldier obviously of humble origins:

Once the line encountered the body of a dead soldier. He lay upon his back staring at the sky. He was dressed in an awkward suit of yellowish brown. The youth could see that the soles of his shoes had been worn to the thinness of writing paper, and from a great rent in one the dead foot projected piteously. It was as if fate betrayed the soldier. In death it exposed to his enemies that poverty which in life he had perhaps concealed from his friends.

(Crane, Red Badge of Courage, p. 134)

Battle of Chancellorsville

Henry Fleming, the main character in The Red Badge of Courage, also appears in Crane’s short story “The Veteran,” a work that identifies the battle in which Fleming fought in the novel. As one scholar noted, “the name of the battle in which Henry Fleming achieved his manhood is never given in The Red Badge of Courage. Scholars have not agreed that the battle even ought to have a name.… Yet an examination of the evidence leads to the conclusion that the battle does have a name—Chancellorsville” (Hungerford, p. 520).

The Battle of Chancellorsville pitted 130,000 Union soldiers under General Joseph Hooker against 60,000 Confederates under General Robert E. Lee. It erupted on May 1, 1863, in Virginia, a state that had seceded, and eventually resulted in a resounding loss for the Union troops despite their superior numbers.

Strategic decisions proved to be a pivotal factor in the battle’s outcome. On the Union side, Hooker crossed the Rappahannock River and advanced to attack the Confederate forces from behind Chancellorsville. Lee and another Confederate general, T. J. “Stonewall” Jackson, meanwhile split their troops. Surprising Hooker, Jackson’s forces attacked the extreme right of the Union forces, far from the ongoing fighting. The Union soldiers panicked, and many fled in terrified mayhem. This opened the way for an attack on the rear of the Union army. A small contingent of Union cavalrymen saved the day, however, and prevented a rout. The cavalry force held off Jackson until the Union side could drag over some artillery and lay down a blast of cannonfire.

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posters and newspaper propaganda touting the glory of war finspired hundreds of thousands of young men to join the Union army. Exaggerated accounts of victories and pictures of dashing men in bright uniforms convinced many that war was honorable and would make men—even heroes—out of ordinary young boys. In the novel, Henry Fleming, Crane’s main character, is lured by these inducements and overwhelmed by romantic notions of the glory of battle—until he experiences the brutal reality of armed conflict for himself.

The Union cavalry charge took place around 6:30 p.m. on May 2, and while it slowed the momentum of the Confederate army, it did not change the outcome. The Union forces were forced to withdraw north of the river and lost the battle. The Union casualties in the Battle of Chancellorsville included 1,606 killed and 9,762 wounded. Nearly six thousand others were missing, but it is uncertain how many of those may have deserted.

Union troubles at the top

Inept leadership contributed heavily to the losses on the Union side. A string of Union generals, including George Mc-Clellan, Ambrose Burnside, Joseph Hooker, and George Gordon Meade, were fired by President Lincoln after suffering huge losses and failing to pursue Lee’s Confederate forces when opportunities arose. The war dragged on in part because of the Union forces’ inability to settle on a cohesive

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battle plan. Finally, though, President Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant devised a plan of all-out assault in 1864. Even with the strategy in place, however, casualties mounted, and from an infantryman’s perspective, it must have been difficult to see the sense of the Union’s military plan. The assault on all fronts was chaotic, and as Crane details, “the men dropped here and there like bundles” (Red Badge of Courage, p. 145). There were too few supplies for the Union army and regiments had a difficult time communicating with each other. Messages were carried by horseback, which meant long delays between battle reports. These delays led to further chaos, as generals could not accurately gauge victories or defeats in a timely fashion, nor could they send in reinforcements or order retreats as needed. As time passed, however, the Union army became a more cohesive body. It emerged victorious in 1865 when the Confederates surrendered at Appomattox.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

As the novel opens, Henry Fleming, a young farm boy who has enlisted in the Union army against his mother’s wishes, awaits his first battle. Henry, a naive young man, is filled with romantic notions of the glory of warfare, but he is also a little terror-stricken.

The rumors of battle reverberate throughout the camp in which Henry waits, as do overinflated stories of bravery, victory, cowardice, and defeat. When armed conflict becomes imminent, Henry questions whether he will be able to perform in battle. He grapples with his conscience, wondering if he can be courageous and heroic, or if he will be a coward and flee. He has the same questions about his fellow soldiers—many of whom he has known since boyhood. Furthermore, he questions the ability of the generals, who are virtually in control of his destiny:

In his great anxiety his heart was continually clamoring at what he considered the intolerable slowness of the generals. They seemed content to perch tranquilly on the river bank, and leave him bowed down by the weight of a great problem.

(The Red Badge of Courage, p. 125)

As Fleming wavers between moods of confidence and self-doubt, he both wants the battle to ensue and hopes it will never happen.

Finally, the battle commences and Henry becomes “not a man but a member” (Red Badge of Courage, p. 143). He loses himself in battle and is at once transformed into “a driven beast” as he fights not individuals but “battle phantoms” (Red Badge of Courage, p. 144). As the conflict increases in intensity, he feels the full impact of the atmosphere of war, its horrific smells and scenes of death and destruction. He survives the initial battle, but just as he begins to feel relieved at his survival, the fighting begins anew, which “to the youth … was an onslaught of redoubtable dragons” (Red Badge of Courage, p. 149). Fear and panic consume him, and as the regiment is attacked he runs into the woods and away from the artillery fire.

Fleming tries to find a rationale for his actions, searching for a way to define himself as a brave soldier who was smart enough to preserve himself rather than a coward who fled the scene of battle and abandoned his fellow men. Unable to resolve this inner conflict, he flees further into the forest and at his first opportunity falls into line with a retreating group of wounded soldiers. As the soldiers march he is questioned by one who asks innocently where he has been wounded. An overwhelming wave of guilt passes over Fleming and he extricates himself from the scene. As he leaves, he encounters a member of his regiment who has been mortally wounded. The wounded man dies before Fleming’s eyes, deepening his Page 311  |  Top of Articlesense of guilt as he retreats even further into the woods. As he continues his miserable flight, he comes to feel that he cannot go back, and begins to wonder what will become of him.

Fleming settles into a hiding place where he watches the battle around him. As he watches other Union soldiers who had previously been in flight turn to join the battle, Fleming contemplates whether they are heroes or fools. He convinces himself that those Union soldiers who turn to engage the enemy are fools, and that the inept generals are leading his regiment to certain death. As he watches from his position of safety, though, he realizes that his comrades are indeed winning the battle and that he is no longer able to justify leaving the battle himself.

By chance Fleming stumbles into a line of men rapidly fleeing through the woods. He grasps at one to ascertain the cause of their deployment and succeeds in irritating the soldier beyond measure. The upset soldier butts Fleming in the head with his rifle and sends him crashing to the ground. The blow, though, turns out to be a great stroke of luck for Fleming, for the injury makes it appear as if he has been injured in battle. He thus rejoins his regiment without reproach.

Finding his regiment camped in the woods, Henry is warmly greeted by fellow soldiers who had given him up for dead. He tells them he has been hit and, after examining him, they determine he has been shot in the head. They bandage him and give him a place to sleep, treating him as a hero. At first, Henry feels guilty and is certain that others will discover his lie. As time passes, though, his tale continues to be accepted. The respect accorded him as one who is a brave soldier continues as well, and Fleming begins to believe his story himself.

The regiment regroups and is sent, once again, into battle. This time, Fleming stands and fights with his comrades, distinguishing himself as one of the bravest of all. He continues to charge when he is called back, and his commanders openly wish all their men fought like him, like “wild cats” (Red Badge of Courage, p. 199).

Henry is next sent into a final skirmish, in which his regiment is to lead a charge into enemy lines. By chance he overhears the generals denigrating his division, calling them nothing more than “mule drivers” to be sacrificed at the front (Red Badge of Courage, p. 202). Henry realizes how insignificant his life is to the army, and feelings of hatred for his superiors well up in him. The generals’ low regard also spurs him to prove his worth, however, and he valiantly stands and

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fights when his regiment charges. He and his friend Wilson, who are lauded as heroes following their strong performance in battle, are subsequently recommended for promotion.

After the battle, Fleming soon forgets his hatred for the generals and the horrible nature of combat. In hindsight, the gruesome fighting becomes glorious and heinous deeds are transformed into valiant efforts. But gradually, as Henry distances himself from the fighting, “his eyes seemed to open to some new ways. He found that he could look back upon the brass and bombast of his earlier gospels and see them truly. He was gleeful when he discovered that he despised them” (Red Badge of Courage, p. 230). As he recalls the total picture of his war experience, from desertion to facing the danger of the front lines, from flight to fight, he truly becomes a man. He realizes that events—particularly in war—can be shaded any color and that, though he was ultimately successful as a soldier, the war experience is an abominable one. He no longer wishes to be any kind of soldier; instead he seeks “an existence of soft and eternal peace” (Red Badge of Courage, p. 231).

How typical was Henry Fleming?

Early in the novel, Fleming’s fear leads him to consider deserting from the army. If he had in fact become Page 312  |  Top of Articlea deserter, he would have had a great deal of company. Desertion was a huge problem for much of the Civil War. Fear, disenchantment, and discouragement at the chaos and lack of leadership were all factors in the high desertion rates, but other reasons included the lack of arms and clothing (especially shoes), the empty months of waiting for pay that never came, and the seemingly endless marching through kneedeep mud. Still another contributor to the desertion rate was the attraction of bounties. Volunteers were offered a bounty—a financial reward—if they enlisted. This led some to join an outfit, collect the bounty, then desert and reenlist in another state under an assumed name.

By the time Hooker took command of the Union forces on January 26, 1863, the number of deserters had mounted to several hundred a day. An average of more than 4,600 soldiers a month deserted from the Union’s Army of the Potomac in 1863. Slipping to the rear and from the field during battle was a common trick, and one that Fleming almost employs in the novel.

The beginning of 1863 saw sharper measures taken against deserters. General Hooker instituted strict rules about taking leaves and arresting stragglers. Those who joined the enemy army or persisted in attempting to desert would be shot or hung. The executions mounted after Chancel-lorsville, in the winter of 1863-64. Earlier penalties had been less severe. If Fleming had been found guilty of desertion, possible punishments would have included being tied up during marches or hard labor on forts or in trenches. Certainly he would have lost at least six months’ pay.


Crane based his realistic tale on accounts of the Civil War that he read in magazines and books, especially texts about Civil War leaders. The author relied on two historical sources in particular. He specifically drew on Corporal Si Klegg and His Vara, a book by Colonel W. F. Hinman published in 1887. His other main source, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (1887) was a collection written by Civil War veterans, who at the request of Century Magazine recorded their memories of major battles. Crane also drew on his own feelings. A twenty-three-year-old man when he wrote the novel, he was of draft age and could relate to how a young man might greet the war experience.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

The temper of the times

In the eyes of many, the 1890s was a pivotal decade in American history. Prior to that time, the United States had been a rural country full of individual spirit. The 1890s saw the growth of an urban and industrial society that displaced the older, largely agrarian one. At the same time, the country’s western frontier was becoming settled and offered fewer opportunities to those hoping to find wealth and adventure. People began to eye territory outside United States borders.

Domestic unrest was visible during the decade as well. Strikes such as the 1892 Homestead Steel strike and the 1894 Pullman railroad strike erupted, while a financial depression also took place between 1892 and 1894. Meanwhile, the philosophy of social Darwinism replaced some of the idealistic notions that had formerly been central to the American identity. According to the social Darwinist philosophy, poverty was an inevitable byproduct of the struggle for existence, and attempts to wipe it out were doomed to failure. A new hopelessness surfaced. Coupled with it were attempts to glamorize the past.

Literature of the decade glorified heroism and the courage of soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. It was in this vein that the editors of Century Magazine had designed Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, one of Crane’s primary sources in writing The Red Badge of Courage. The editors hoped to foster mutual respect for both armies, focusing on the bonds forged by soldiers in the field rather than the horrors they endured.

Crane’s novel challenged these popular tales, which often featured heroes on the battlefield rewarded by the love of an awed heroine at home. In The Red Badge of Courage, Henry Fleming has similar romantic notions of warfare, but they are dispelled when he encounters the grim reality of the battlefield. Crane believed fiction should present a slice out of life, a goal he attempted to achieve in his novel. He was apparently successful in this regard, for many readers had a difficult time believing he had not yet experienced war firsthand.

Crane attempted to capture the reality of war in a certain way, employing a methodology similar to the artists of his era who produced impressionistic paintings: to record the way an experience affects the senses before the mind intervenes to analyze it. At least one reviewer argues that in doing so, Crane had no intention of writing an antiwar novel:

It is difficult to see Red Badge, written in a militaristic decade like the 1890s as upholding antiwar sentiments. … Deeply located in its own historical period, [the text] … points not Page 313  |  Top of Articleto antiwar feelings but to the martial spirit of its times. … [It simply] makes no attempt to hide the carnage that is war. … In Red Badge the romantic, old-fashioned approach to war and violence which dominated popular literature is contrasted with an impressionistic, spectacular descriptive mode

(Mariani, p. 142-43)

It has been further suggested that Crane used this same style of describing battles in his later assignments as a war correspondent for American newspapers, first in Greece during the Greco-Turkish War in 1897, then in Cuba during the Spanish-American War a year later. He apparently secured his correspondent positions specifically because of his ability to create vivid fictional descriptions of battles. This provides further support for the claim that readers of his day did not regard his literary output as antiwar in tone.

New York City street life

Crane spent much of his early adult life living among the urban poor and “fringe element” of New York City. He frequently kept company with prostitutes and street people, even disguising himself as a transient in order to learn how they lived and were treated by society. He was one of the first “literary bohemians,” so-called because he cavorted with and wrote about these outcast members of society (Chase in Crane, p. xi). In this way he was ahead of his time, although he was often criticized for his choice of subject matter. Many did not consider the lower classes to be a fitting topic for literary endeavors. Crane was able to use his city experiences in the novel by drawing on the grim parallels between poverty-stricken urban streets and bloody war zones. In the novel, he refers to the approaching army as a train and speaks of soldiers as mobs, linking the urban battlefield to the military one. His observations of poor residents in the city also helped him to imagine the mindset of soldiers; both the urban poor and the men in battle faced seemingly insurmountable odds as they attempted to survive.

The “progress” of civilization

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, it was assumed that humankind was steadily progressing. Advancements in technology, rapid industrialization, and improved education made some people feel that humans—and in particular Americans—had evolved beyond the destruction and ignorance that had taken place in the past. Yet wars continued to be fought and, with the improvement of weapons technology, became bloodier and more deadly. Crane points out in his novel that though education and religion were supposed to have “civilized” men and “checked” their passions, war continued to rage, and violence had only increased (Red Badge of Courage, p. 120). His words proved visionary when the United States engaged in its first international conflict, the Spanish-American War, in 1898. Working in Cuba for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and later for the Hearst newspapers, Crane covered the conflict as a full-fledged war correspondent. His real-life experience confirmed the disenchantment captured in his earlier The Red Badge of Courage.

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One of the best-selling novels during the Spanish-American War was The Song of Rappahannock, a patriotic story that challenged The Red Badge of Courage, declaring that recruits did not behave like the unsteady Henry Fleming.


The Red Badge of Courage was an overwhelming success when it was published. It was the first war novel of its kind, a work in which the psychology rather than just the physical activity of war was examined. Reviewers hailed the novel as a great work, and the only major criticisms leveled against the novel were that it at times lacked unity and that it featured an ending that was overly moralistic. The novel made Crane famous and led to a series of related war stories, including a follow-up short story, “The Veteran” (1896), which detailed the later life and death of Henry Fleming.

For More Information

Benfey, Christopher. The Double Life of Stephen Crane: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Cady, Edwin. Stephen Crane. New York: Twayne, 1962.

Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. Edited by Richard Chase. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.

Hungerford, Harold R. “That Was at Chancellorsville’: The Factual Framework of The Red Badge of Courage.” American Literature 34 (January 1963): 520-31.

Lonn, Ella. Desertion during the Civil War. New York: Century, 1928.

Mariani, Giorgio. Spectacular Narratives: Representations of Class and War in Stephen Crane and the American 1890s. New York: Peter Lang, 1992.

Wheeler, Richard. Voices of the Civil War. New York: Thomas Crowell, 1976.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2875100128