The next morning, the soldiers learn that Jim was mistaken: the army does not move. Henry continues to worry about his courage, and watches his comrades for any sign that they share his self-doubt. One day, the army is given orders and begins to march. While marching, the soldiers debate when and if they will see battle. Henry keeps to himself, too preoccupied with his own speculations to join the other men. The regiment enjoys itself, and is wildly amused when a fat soldier attempts to steal a horse but the young girl who owns it stops him. At night, the men set up camp, and Henry, feeling “vast pity for himself,” asks Wilson if he can imagine himself running from battle. Wilson indignantly claims that he would do his part in a battle and leaves Henry feeling even more alone.
The next night finds the increasingly exhausted soldiers marching through a dark forest. Henry worries that the enemy might appear at any moment. When the enemy fails to materialize, Henry returns to thinking that his regiment is nothing more than a “blue demonstration.” One morning, however, Jim shakes Henry awake. They hear the crack of distant gunfire, and the regiment begins to run. Boxed in by his fellow soldiers as the officers goad them toward the battle, Henry realizes that even if he wanted to run, the throng of surrounding soldiers would trample him. Pressed forward, the regiment parts to move around the body of a dead soldier. As he passes the corpse, Henry grows increasingly vulnerable, and curses the commanding officers who, it seems, are leading them to certain death.
The men stop several times, many using branches and stones to build protective trenches which they must abandon as the march drives them forward. The more the regiment moves, the faster the soldiers’ morale wanes. They gradually begin to think that their leaders are incompetent and indecisive. As the fighting draws closer and the sound of gunfire grows louder, Wilson tells Henry that he believes he will die in the battle. He gives Henry a yellow envelope and asks him to deliver it to his family, should he not make it home.
The regiment stops in a grove with the chaos of battle raging around them. The regiment’s lieutenant is shot in the hand. The soldiers of the 304th take their place on the line, and veteran soldiers who mock their inexperience surround them. As a group of enemy soldiers thunders toward them, Henry and his regiment load their weapons and prepare to engage. Miserably, Henry remains convinced that when he has to confront the worst that war has to offer, he might distinguish himself not by how bravely he fights, but by how quickly he runs away.
The self-doubt awakened in Henry in Chapter I continues to plague him as he draws closer to battle in Chapter II. He oscillates between grand, dramatic fantasies of the “traditional courage” that leads to glory in the field and an innocent belief that the army is never going to fight—that his regiment, rendered impotent by Christian education, constitutes merely a “blue demonstration.” Henry’s experiences eventually shatter these preconceptions. His development into a man who understands that courage, duty, and manhood are complicated and sometimes compromised is the most compelling aspect of The Red Badge of Courage.
Even at this early stage, there are excellent opportunities to scrutinize Henry’s conflicted character. He is incredibly vain, obsesses over his own feelings, and seems unwilling to differentiate between moral behavior and behavior that simply wins him the envy and praise of others. In other words, he is less concerned with duty than with glory. He fears being exposed as a coward, not because cowardice marks a shirking of his responsibilities as a soldier, but because such exposure would deny him an illustrious reputation. After all, Henry’s desire for a noble name prompts his enlistment in the first place—he feels little obligation to earn the title of hero. Rather, the “lavish expenditure” of food, smiles, and compliments that he meets on the way to Washington proves to be enough to make him believe that he deserves such rewards.
As the novel progresses, Henry comes to the painful realization of his own insignificance in the grand scheme of the universe—as his mother tells him in Chapter I, he is “jest one little feller amongst a hull lot of others.” When the marching troops come across a corpse, Henry feels “the impulse of the living to try to read in dead eyes the answer to the Question.” “The Question” is never articulated, but the answer, which Henry moves closer and closer to learning, has much to do with understanding the modest and fragile proportions of one’s life and the meaning of honor. Crane uses passing moments such as Henry’s memory of his mother’s advice and this first encounter with a dead soldier to plant some of the novel’s larger ideas in the reader’s mind. The narrative’s major thematic concerns, such as the irresolvable tensions between self-preservation and the impetus to behave honorably, begin to be defined.