Whatever he had learned of himself was here of no avail. He was an unknown quantity.
On a cold, foggy morning, an army wakes on the banks of a river. A tall soldier named Jim Conklin begins his day by washing his shirt, and rushes back to camp to report a rumor he has overheard: the regiment will move into battle the next day. As the men in this particular squad have yet to face any military action, Jim’s words provoke much excitement and debate. One private loudly declares Conklin a liar, and a corporal complains that he would not have made costly renovations to his house if he had known he would be called to leave it. Henry Fleming, a young private, listens attentively to the arguments, then retreats to his bunk to collect his thoughts.
Having dreamed of the glory and valor of battle since childhood, Henry cannot believe that he may find himself in the heat of combat the very next day. He wonders if soldiers in his regiment can possibly achieve the same glory that the ancient Greek war heroes did. He believes that religion, education, and common household concerns have tamed men, sapping them of “the throat-grappling instinct,” but that, in battle, they can still prove themselves worthy. In fact, the conviction that battle may be the only way for a man to distinguish himself prompted Henry to enlist in the first place. He remembers how his mother discouraged this course of action, how she refused to share in his romantic ideas of dying a celebrated war hero. He thinks of her parting advice to him: never to do anything he would feel ashamed to tell her. She encourages him to do the right thing and not to shirk his duties for the sake of returning home alive to care for her; she assures him that she will carry on whether or not he returns.
Henry remembers his journey to Washington, where the regiment assembled and enjoyed an abundance of food, the friendly smiles of girls, and the assurances of men. There, Henry felt as if he had become a hero. The months that followed his enlistment, however, were monotonous and static. The daily grind of camp life has forced Henry to abandon thoughts of glory. He struggles, instead, to preserve his own personal well-being. Given his discomfort, Henry wonders if he will be capable of thriving in battle. With rumors of a march into a fierce skirmish the following day, Henry realizes that his character has gone untested up until this point in his life. He wonders if he has the fortitude to endure battle, or if cowardice will make him flee. When Jim returns to the tent, Henry asks him if he would ever consider running from battle. Jim answers that he would likely follow the cues of the men surrounding him, fighting when they fought, running when they ran. Henry feels relieved that he is not alone in questioning his own courage.
Readers at the end of the nineteenth century, for many of whom the American Civil War was a recent memory, were accustomed to reading about the Civil War as a grand, morally charged clash of ideals. Writers such as Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and Walt Whitman treated the conflict—especially the fight to abolish slavery—as a means of fulfilling the American dream and promise of freedom. Crane, however, skirts the moral terrain of the war by focusing instead on the day-to-day reality that an untested regiment of soldiers faces. If a clear-cut dividing line can be drawn between the concerns of the warring North and South, Crane does little to honor it. He does not introduce a band of righteous, well-fitted soldiers who represent all that is good and glorious. Instead, he depicts a group of soldiers who are, for the most part, utterly amateur. They have never fought, they hold their commanding officers in contempt, and they have no sense of the glory commonly associated with military service. In short, Crane places the reader squarely in the sphere of realism, which attempts to portray life as it is, rather than allegory, which uses symbolism to convey meaning.
Whereas the early nineteenth century brought forth writers who sought to escape or transcend reality, and who often wrote in a flowery style, writers in the latter part of the century, according to William Dean Howells, insisted on “nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of materials.” Although powerful and evocative, Crane’s descriptions of the army, life in the camp, and the natural surroundings are stripped of unnecessarily ornamental language. Crane records both the daily life of the soldiers and Henry’s complex inner musings in clear, direct, unadorned prose:
The youth was in a little trance of astonishment. So they were at last going to fight. On the morrow, perhaps, there would be a battle, and he would be in it. For a time he was obliged to labor to make himself believe. He could not accept with assurance an omen that he was about to mingle in one of those great affairs of the earth.
The main battle of The Red Badge of Courage is the psychological one that takes place in Henry’s head. From the moment he is introduced, Henry struggles to reconcile the fanciful narratives of larger-than-life heroes emerging from bloody but valorous battles with the much plainer, much less glorified existence of life in the 304th Regiment. When he learns that he may soon be placed on the battlefront, he begins to weigh the war that he imagined against the war in which he actually finds himself. He wonders if he, like the heroes of Ancient Greece before him, will return from battle “with his shield or on it.”
The novel focuses on Henry’s concern about dying without recognition versus achieving public glory. Within the first few pages, Henry appears vain and self-centered. His idea of glory falls short of the Homeric heroes whom he praises, for he lacks their requisite sense of duty. He does not consider earning or proving himself worthy of public recognition nearly as important as the recognition itself. So long as he is met by smiling girls and appreciative men, he is content to think of himself as a hero. However, as the possibility of battle draws closer, and Henry begins to question whether he deserves the accolades he desires, both Henry and the reader are forced to question traditional understandings of such abstract concepts as glory, cowardice and, of course, courage.