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.”
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.