The noise of battle grows into a “furnace roar,” and Henry comes upon a line of soldiers and wagons inching down the road. He watches a column of infantry hurrying to reach the battle and senses that he is “regarding a procession of chosen beings.” The enthusiastic soldiers increase Henry’s feelings of wretchedness, underscoring, he believes, his own inadequacy. He feels a brief rush of violent enthusiasm and nearly starts out for the battlefield himself, but quickly talks himself out of it: he has no rifle, he is hungry and thirsty, and his body is sore and aching. He hovers near the battlefield, though, hoping to get to see who is winning. He thinks that if his side loses, it will partially justify his actions and prove the almost prophetic powers of perception that enabled him to predict this defeat. He alleviates his guilt for wishing his comrades ill by reflecting that his army has overcome every defeat it has faced in the past. Still, he feels deeply guilty and brands himself a terrible villain and “the most unutterably selfish man in existence.”
Henry does not believe that the soldiers in blue can possibly lose the battle. He therefore resolves to come up with a story to justify his actions to his fellow soldiers when they return to camp, so that they will not scorn him when he rejoins them. He is unable to concoct a sufficient excuse, however, and fears that he is doomed to bear the contempt of his comrades and that his name will become slang for coward.
Henry finally gets a look at the battlefield and sees the enemy forces swallowing the column of infantrymen he envied earlier. The blue line breaks and the blue soldiers retreat. Soon, they rush toward him. Desperate and overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of warfare, Henry clutches a fleeing man’s arm and tries to ask him what went wrong. The frenzied man shouts at Henry to let him go and, when Henry does not comply, slams the butt of his rifle into Henry’s head. Bloodied, Henry collapses and tries to stumble out of the crowd of retreating men. He meets a cheerful stranger who talks to him about the battle and helps him to find his own regiment. As the stranger points Henry to his regiment’s campfire and disappears into the forest, Henry realizes that he never once saw the man’s face.
These transitional chapters carry Henry from the depth of his greatest despair to his reunion with his regiment. As noted previously, part of Henry’s longing for a wound stems from the fact that he considers a wound to be undeniable proof of courage in battle. Henry’s wounding is ironic as it in no way involves courageous behavior on his part. Because it happens as a result of a desperate misunderstanding with a comrade and would not have occurred had Henry been in battle, this wounding is a disgrace rather than a source of pride. Whereas Henry sought a wound as an emblem of courage, his actual wound is an emblem of shame.
Henry’s view of right and wrong is still at least partially rooted in his weighty consideration of the opinions of his peers: he does feel shame, not for failing to honor the cause of the Union against the Confederacy, but because he believes his friends will jeer at him. Henry may seem despicable at such moments—Crane frequently holds him up for criticism—but it is important to remember that Henry’s folly could well be anyone’s. Henry is beset by common, human emotions, making him an object of empathy.
Crane continues to divest both the Union and Confederate armies of any moral qualities or idealistic associations: they do not represent ideas, cultures, or beliefs in this novel; they are simply two colors on a battlefield. These armies are never referred to by name—Henry Fleming does not fight for the Union army; he fights for the “blue” army. In fact, Henry is almost never even called by his name; he is usually referred to as “the youth” or “the young soldier,” just as Wilson is called “the loud soldier.” The elimination of proper names has multiple functions. First, it brings the story, concerned from the outset with larger-than-life notions of courage and honor, down to a more earthly level. These soldiers are common men leading common lives, which ultimately forces the reader to reconsider those traditionally lofty ideals. Second, anonymity lends the narrative a sense of universality, as the reader can imagine any soldier in any war facing the quandaries that plague Henry. In this manner, Crane broadens the novel’s scope far beyond the single “Episode of the American Civil War” that its subtitle suggests.
Perhaps the strangest feature of these two chapters is the unnamed and faceless “cheerful soldier” who escorts Henry back to his camp. This character has an almost supernatural quality about him, and is the subject of numerous and colorful interpretations: some maintain that he is Jim Conklin’s ghost, while others believe he represents Jesus Christ. In all probability, Crane’s commitment to realism would have precluded an interpretation that makes the cheerful soldier a supernatural or divine being; instead, he seems simply one more bewildering element in the incomprehensible realm of battle.