Under Fire: The Regiment & The Youth

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…

Spoiler Alert

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.

8 Responses to Under Fire: The Regiment & The Youth

  1. We read… we watch… we experience… and we move on. But it is good, on occasion, to revisit early experiences with fresh eyes, and informed opinion. The Red Badge of Courage was written convincingly by an author with no first-hand exposure to war [and the same could be said of Margaret Mitchell and her one-off novel.] To Stephen Crane’s credit, his story holds up to scrutiny, stands the test of time. Even at this last reading, I can detect only two minor errors. “Let the unfortunates rail; the others may play marbles.”

  2. I took my on xcreen moniker from this character. Its not that Crane didn’t fight in the war for being yellow or weak, he was born years after its official end, as some carried it on in their own way for a long time after. Like many of the men we read of and walk in their steps on battlefields, Crane died young. His promising life fulfilled but cut short at 28.

  3. I read somewhere that crane got his information that he used in the Ted Badge of Courage from talking to former members of the “Orange Blossoms” – the 124th NY. . It was hotly engaged at Chancellorsville, losing 28 killed, 161 wounded and 15 missing—a total of 204 out of 550 engaged. We can assume Henry Flemming was a member of this regiment

  4. Sarah, one of our mandated summer reads for the prep school I attended. Loved the sparse, for the 19th century, and terse prose. By the way, saw your presentation on “The Gallant Pelham”. Wonderful. Too often this toxically partisan age makes it de rigueur that we demean those in the military sphere when we dislike their social views, as if humanity were conveniently two dimensional. You breathed life into old bones, or in his case, young ones.
    And I agree, a monograph on the other Pelham brothers in the Western Theater would be useful, and at least interesting to those whose ancestors also suffered under Braxton Bragg!?

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