Was it really Chancellorsville? Exploring Details in The Red Badge of Courage

The Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center includes a display about Crane and Red Badge.

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane is a work of classic fiction, exploring universal themes of humanity, violence, war, and the growth of courage. One of the brilliant things about the story is the lack of details—meaning that while the story is clearly set during the American Civil War, Crane never tells readers in the original novel what battle he describes and he uses a fictional regiment. Even the officers who appear in the story are nameless or vaguely designated.

In yesterday’s article, Jon Tracey explored fictional character Henry Fleming’s transformation and the individual focus of the story. Through an off-the-blog discussion came the idea to go through the novel and see what evidence exists to pinpoint a particular Civil War battle. Chancellorsville has long been recognized by literary critics as the probably fight, but from a researcher’s perspective why (or does) that theory hold true? A close re-reading of The Red Badge of Courage reveals three categories to examine from the text: the river, the strategy, and the landmarks or topography. (Spoilers ahead if you have not read the novel.)

The un-named river is in the opening and closing scenes of the story and features several other important times in the story. Readers learn that the unnamed army has wintered near this river, some of the soldiers have picketed along it, and from the battleground, there is a road to the river. These facts alone start a weak case for Chancellorsville; however, one telling remark that main character Henry Fleming considers making might help to identify the river. “The youth wished to launch a joke—a quotation from newspapers. He desired to say, ‘All quiet on the Rappahannock,’ but the guns refused to permit even a comment upon their uproar. He never successfully concluded the sentence.”

The army marched upriver and came on the enemy’s rear? Sounds like the Chancellorsville Campaign?

Building upon the watery foundation of the river and a Rappahannock river joke, the case for Chancellorsville gains ground with the slipped-in details of military strategy. Often given through soldiers’ dialogue, readers learn that there is a rumor that the army will be “goin’ way up the river, cut across, an’ come around in behint ‘em” while the cavalry had just started off on an early raid. The rumors begin in the early spring, followed by a delay and complaints in the ranks about the slowness of their generals and a routine lack of Union victories. As the story unfolds, Fleming’s regiment crosses the river on two pontoon bridges and then the army “sat down to think.” The mention of the lack of victories helps to solidify that this story is set in the eastern theater of the Civil War and the description of the rumored campaign does not match large-scale operations in 1861, 1862, 1864, or 1865, leaving 1863 and the Chancellorsville campaign the likely alignment with the timeline history and the description of marching, crossing the river, and coming in on the enemy’s rear. During the battle chapters, fighting and a panicky retreat is described “over on the right” and an officer worried about the center of the line breaking; perhaps similar to the historic situation on May 2, 1863 as Jackson’s Flank Attack rolled up the XI Corps camps and threatened the center of the Federal position.

Landmarks and topography strongly suggest the Virginian Wilderness. While Crane wrote about fields and forest, the aspect of the wooded areas suggests the thick undergrowth of the Wilderness. The rumored strategy and the brief hints of the marching route strongly rules out the beginning of the 1864 Overland Campaign, leaving Chancellorsville as the likely battle in the Wilderness. Other particularly interesting landmarks are the roads. One soldier brags about his brigade fighting on the “turnpike road” while another was desperately looking for the “Plank Road” — both sounding familiar to major roads around Chancellorsville and through the Wilderness. Although a few structures are mentioned in the text, the descriptions did not seem specific enough to pinpoint a particular farm or home in the area. The quick and intentional construction and use of trenches or earthworks throughout the novel also suggest an 1863 or later setting, but the earthwork lines are not described in enough detail to fully identify an exact place on the historic battle lines.

The strongest case for Chancellorsville comes from Stephen Crane’s own pen, basically sealing the argument and confirming that the details wove into the original story connecting it to that battle are correct. In 1896, the year after publishing the novel, Crane penned a short story titled “The Veteran.” Those pages show Henry Fleming as an old man, and early in the tale, the old veteran talks about his war experience and even admits with a humorous twist that he ran. Then he clarifies the battle when he ran: “That was at Chancellorsville. Of course, afterward I got kind of used to it [battle]. A man does. . .” Other parts of the old man’s story clearly connect to the incidents and other characters in The Red Badge of Courage, confirming that the battle was Chancellorsville.

The subtle historical details and their accuracy do not add distraction to Crane’s original story. Perhaps readers with an interest in Civil War history may find it even more meaningful to know that Chancellorsville is the setting for the fictional account because it becomes easier to imagine young Henry Fleming running through the woods, charging into open fields, and coming to grips with his own definitions of courage, even as the army around him suffered a decisive defeat and retreated toward the ever-flowing Rappahannock River.

10 Responses to Was it really Chancellorsville? Exploring Details in The Red Badge of Courage

  1. Great article. Yesterday I posted to the story about henry Flamming that I recalled that two roads mentioned in the book indicated Chancellorsville . I could not remember the names. I even quickly scanned the book but did not find them. Sarah did not miss them ! She correctly identified the [Orange] turnpike and the plank road. Perfect!

  2. It is a work of fiction, but Stephen Crane “clarified” in a further work of fiction that it is Chancellorsville. Seems to me the ‘mystery’ was hence resolved long ago. Or so it appears. But given how it is fiction, Crane inserted some aspects of other campaigns and battles as well. “The river” is not named, but given the prominence the Rappahannock River plays in the Eastern theater of the War, and the actual reference to it in the book, then it’s not a hard stretch to ‘assume’ that it is indeed the Rappahannock in question. BUT, then again, the Rapidan River played a significant role in many campaigns, including Chancellorsville. So either/or would probably do just fine! Also in the book, when Henry cowers away and eventually reaches the “rear” of the Union forces, he hears a general talk about “the Union victory”.

    So what ‘victory’ would that be for the Union at Chancellorsville? There were some isolated successes by them, Could the general in the book be referring to the action against Stonewall’s rear guard at Catherine’s Furnace? Fredericksburg was part of the Chancellorsville battle. Was the “victory” the one Sedgwick attained in booting Jubal Early off of Marye’s Heights? The book’s final battle ends with a victory for Henry’s unit. With all that said, Stephen Crane’s “identifying” the battle via the ‘elderly’ Henry Fleming may have been after-the-fact ‘fleshing out’ of his character and the story itself. After all, the book is more about “the war” young Henry fights within himself. By the end of the book, it is HE who has “defeated” his demons. The rest is just part of the narrative. But that narrative has always, to me anyways, indicated an overall Union victory. So that in itself would mean the campaign could NOT have been Chancellorsville. So does the mystery continue? LOL..

    1. Interesting points! In past readings I’ve interpreted the general’s talk as the mid-battle hopes; if we’re talking about the same sections, I believe it’s on May 2 before the rumors of the Union right “collapsing.” And at that point historically, some of the Union generals did believe the Confederates were in retreat toward Orange. Just some thoughts…

      1. Hi Sarah. Certainly everyone’s ‘interpretations’ are as valid as everybody else’s. In fact, I always got the feeling Stephen Crane imparted so much ambiguity into the story, because the real story was within young Henry Fleming’s soul and psyche. So I always viewed the actual battle or campaign or location as (somewhat) irrelevant to that real story.

        Full disclosure here, it’s been years, as in DECADES, since I read the book. If my memory serves me, there were various releases of Crane’s novel due to syndication and serialization of it in various sources, and hence there were often considerable parts of the original that didn’t get printed because the articles were often condensed. I think (again, if the ol’ memory is serving me right) that his full, uncut novel was released in Great Britain, and it wasn’t until many, many years later that it became available here in the USA. And that was after the fine movie came out (starring Audie Murphy), so I wonder if the screenwriters had access to Crane’s original?

        And yes, during the actual Chancellorsville battle, there were ebbs and flows, and ups and downs for both sides. Misreading the other side’s movements manifested itself again as it did in so many other battles and campaigns. So, for myself anyways, when it comes to Crane’s work, it remains “Who knows?” Too bad he died at such a young age. Perhaps more clarification could have come forth from him had he lived longer!

        Regardless, another great article from you. Thank you for that..

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