Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage has been recognized for it’s descriptions of battle and human responses. While working on this new series, I wanted to look at the chapters where the regiment and Henry Fleming (the main character) first come under fire during the Battle of Chancellorsville.
A shell screaming like a storm banshee went over the huddled heads of the reserves. It landed in the grove, and exploding redly flung the brown earth. There was a little shower of pine needles.
Bullets began to whistle among the branches and nip at the trees. Twigs and leaves came sailing down. It was as if a thousand axes, wee and invisible, were being wielded. Many of the men were constantly dodging and ducking their heads.
The lieutenant of the youth’s company was shot in the hand. He began to swear so wondrously that a nervous laugh went along the regimental line. The officer’s profanity sounded conventional. It relieved the tightened senses of the new men. It was as if he had hit his fingers with a tack hammer at home.
He held the wounded member carefully away from his side so that the blood would not drip upon his trousers.
The captain of the company, tucking his sword under his arm, produced a handkerchief and began to bind with it the lieutenant’s wound. And they disputed as to how the binding should be done.
[Combat swirls toward the “green” regiment and other regiments around them begin to break and retreat]
Perspiration streamed down the youth’s face, which was soiled like that of a weeping urchin. He frequently, with a nervous movement, wiped his eyes with his coat sleeve. His mouth was still a little way open.
He got the one glance at the foe-swarming field in front of him, and instantly ceased to debate the question of his piece being loaded. Before he was ready to begin—before he had announced to himself that he was about to fight—he threw the obedient, well-balanced rifle into position and fired a first wild shot. Directly he was working at his weapon like an automatic affair.
He suddenly lost concern for himself, and forgot to look at a menacing fate. He became not a man but a member. He felt that something of which he was a part—a regiment, an army, a cause, or a country—was in a crisis. He was welded into a common personality which was dominated by a single desire. For some moments he could not flee…
Henry runs, but one of my favorite sections of the novel this year is that moment before he flees. He begins to get the sense of belonging and one that will influence him later in the story as well, even as his individuality on the battlefield develops also.
As critics often point out, author Stephen Crane did not fight in the Civil War, but he may have heard stories from veterans in his hometown. Whatever oral histories or keen imagination inspired the “first fire” scenes in his novel, Crane echoed written accounts from the Civil War battlefields but took it to a new level of expression with careful word choice to draw the scene and the feelings of soldiers entering battle for the first time.