Stomping through the forest, Henry hears “the crimson roar” of battle. Hoping to get a closer look, he heads toward it. He comes upon a column of wounded men stumbling along a road, and notices one spectral soldier with a vacant gaze. Henry joins the column and a soldier with a bloody head and a dangling arm begins to talk to him. Henry tries to avoid this tattered man, but the wounded soldier continues to talk about the courage and fortitude of the army, exuding pride that his regiment did not flee from the fighting. He asks Henry where he has been wounded, and Henry hurries away in a panic.
Henry falls back in the procession to avoid the tattered man. As he observes the wounded soldiers around him, he becomes envious of their injuries; he considers a wound proof of valor—a “red badge of courage”—and wishes that he had one. He walks by the spectral soldier that he noticed earlier, a gray man staring blankly into “the unknown.” Henry suddenly realizes the man’s identity and cries out: “Gawd! Jim Conklin!” Jim greets Henry wearily and asks where he has been, telling him, “I got shot.”
Jim adds that he is afraid of falling down and being run over by the artillery wagons. Henry promises to take care of him. Jim seems reassured, but soon orders Henry to leave him alone and not touch him. Baffled, Henry tries to lead Jim into the fields, where the artillery wagons will not frighten him, but Jim musters the strength to run away toward a small clump of bushes. Henry and the tattered man follow after him, watching in horror as Jim convulses, collapses, and dies. The flap of Jim’s blue jacket falls away from his body, and Henry sees that his side looks “as if it had been chewed by wolves.” Consumed with rage at his friend’s death, Henry clenches his fist and shakes it angrily in the direction of the battlefield.
The tattered man marvels at the strength that Jim mustered before death, wondering how he managed to run when his injury should have rendered him unable to walk. Henry and the tattered man move away from the corpse. The tattered man says that he is feeling “pretty damn’ bad,” and Henry worries that he is about to witness another death. The tattered man says, however, that he is not about to die—he has children who need him to survive. He mistakes Henry for his friend Tom Jamison and tells him that he also looks weak, and that he should have his wound looked at. He adds that he once saw a man shot in the head so that the man did not realize he was hurt until he was already dead.
Tormented, Henry leaves the tattered man behind. As he stalks away, the tattered man, whom Henry knows will almost certainly die if abandoned, seems to lose his focus, and begins crying out to Henry. Driven to distraction by the tattered man’s questions about his wound, Henry cannot bear the thought of anyone discovering “his crime.”
The encounters with Jim and the tattered man force Henry to reconcile fantasy with reality. He views the wounded soldiers as heroic and enviable, but watches two of them die. Henry is deeply ashamed of his own cowardice in running from battle, and longs for a wound to validate his nerve. But the soldiers who acted as he wishes he could have—one of them his childhood friend Jim Conklin—both die of their wounds. The apparent necessity of navigating this conflict between life and honor troubles Henry greatly.
Nowhere in the novel is the tension between the human instinct of self-preservation and the impetus toward moral behavior stronger or more upsetting to Henry. Though he anxiously wishes to act bravely to earn the praise and envy of others, he is afraid to die. The pathetic fates of the tattered man and Jim arouse these conflicting emotions in Henry, causing him to experience unbearable self-doubt. He modifies the positive connection between battle wound and courage into an inverse correlation between battle wound and shame: since he has not been injured, he feels his disgrace is visible to everyone around him. Too immature to confront his insecurities, Henry evades them by rashly abandoning the dying, tattered man, whose battle wound underscores the courage that Henry lacks.
Henry’s various experiences with nature’s indifference to human concerns further complicate his outlook by removing his sense of moral absolutes: if the universe has no regard for human concerns, then human moral conventions do not reflect a definitive, natural spectrum of right and wrong. Henry comes to believe that human beings are not inherently moral animals; rather, they have simply constructed an arbitrary and inflexible system of morality that often runs counter to their own instincts. In contrast, nature’s definitive, nonarbitrary judgments of right and wrong change with, and are dependent on, the human value of self-preservation.
In this environment, the idea of a wound appeals immensely to the troubled, young Henry. While it may seem ironic that an individual who fears danger would long for an injury, Henry considers a wound irrefutable proof of the moral position he so desperately seeks, a symbol not only of courage but also of an entire value system that nature ignores.