Terrified that his fellow soldiers will revile him for fleeing from the battle, Henry totters toward the fire. He navigates his way past the bodies of his sleeping comrades with great difficulty. Suddenly a loud voice instructs him to halt. Henry recognizes Wilson standing guard. He informs Wilson that he has been shot in the head after being separated from the regiment and fighting with another group. His friend immediately turns him over to the corporal. The corporal examines him and decides that Henry has been grazed by a shell, which has left little more than a lump: “jest as if some feller had lammed yeh on th’ head with a club.” Wearily, Henry watches the camp until Wilson returns with a canteen of coffee. He nurses Henry, tending to his head with a wet cloth and giving him his blanket for the night. Grateful and dazed, Henry drifts off to sleep.
Henry wakes in the gray, misty dawn, feeling as though he has been “asleep for a thousand years.” In the distance he hears the roar of fighting which rumbles around him with a “deadly persistency.” Looking around at his sleeping comrades, Henry believes for a moment that he is surrounded by dead men and cries out in anguish. When the bugle blows, however, the men get up slowly. Wilson asks Henry how he feels as he tends to his head. “Pretty bad,” Henry replies. As Wilson tends to Henry, Henry notices a change in his friend: he is no longer the loud soldier, that sensitive and prickly youth obsessed with his own sense of valor. Instead, he seems to have acquired a quiet, but remarkable, confidence. The two men discuss the battle, and Henry reports that Jim Conklin is dead. A group of soldiers exchanges harsh words near Henry and Wilson, nearly coming to blows. Wilson intervenes, keeps the peace, and returns to Henry. He says that the regiment lost more than half of its men the day before, but that many of them have since returned—they scattered in the woods, he reports, and fought with other regiments, just like Henry.
He had performed his mistakes in the dark, so he was still a man.
Henry remembers the yellow envelope that Wilson had asked to be delivered to his family upon his death. He is about to remind Wilson of it, but thinks better of this at the last moment. He believes that having the envelope—an emblem of Wilson’s past vulnerability—will enable him to deflect any unpleasant questions Wilson might ask about Henry’s activities during the previous day. For Henry, the envelope becomes an insurance policy against being caught in a lie, and his self-assurance is restored. He does not worry about the battles ahead of him, thinking that he is “doomed to greatness” and cannot be killed. He feels scorn for his comrades who ran from the battle the previous day, thinking that they fled more wildly than was necessary, while he himself “fled with discretion and dignity.”
Wilson interrupts Henry’s reverie by asking him for the envelope back. Henry returns it, and Wilson seems deeply embarrassed. Henry feels sorry for his friend and immensely superior to him; he imagines telling his mother and a young lady from his hometown stories of the war, and thinks that his tales will shatter their feeble preconceptions of heroism and combat.
In preparing Henry for his next experience in battle, these three chapters focus almost entirely on his vanity, hypocrisy, and unfounded sense of superiority, which escalate by Chapter XV to an almost unbearable degree. As the narrative progresses, Henry allows the opinions of his peers to determine not only his sense of moral behavior, but also his very sense of truth. He feels no guilt upon discovering that his shameful injury can pass as a respect-inspiring, combat-inflicted wound. Furthermore, even though he ran while Wilson fought, Henry feels superior to his friend when he remembers the yellow envelope, which he considers concrete proof of Wilson’s cowardice. Without such proof to mark his own downfall, and with the validation of his wound as a testament to his alleged courage, Henry feels invincible: “He had performed his mistakes in the dark, so he was still a man.” Though his main experience of war so far has been running from it, Henry demonstrates his stomach-turning vanity by imagining that he will soon regale the women in his life with his shocking and moving stories of battle.
Through such developments, Crane explores Henry’s nearly limitless powers of self-delusion. In his desperate need to rebuild his shattered sense of importance, Henry blocks the coming battle out of his mind, content instead to rest upon his unearned laurels. Though he has yet to prove himself, Henry believes that he is destined to do great deeds. He is certain that fate, God, or the universe—the utter indifference of which has so recently shocked him—will keep him alive and thriving. Crane uses these passages to reveal the complex subtleties of man’s instinctual impulse to survive, linking it to less excusable behaviors induced by self-deception and vanity.
Throughout The Red Badge of Courage, vanity and self-deception prove to be the mind’s most successful strategy for coping with the extraordinary fragility and insignificance of human life. If not for self-delusion, the dangers one faces would drive one mad; if not for vanity, one’s own unimportance would drive one to despair. Part of the instinct to survive hinges on the individual’s belief in the importance of his own survival, the preciousness of his life. As a result of fleeing the dangers of war and the despair that follows them, Henry has come face to face with his own insignificance, and reacts in the only way available to him. To maintain control over his fears, he lies to those around him and then convinces himself that whatever they believe—that he is courageous, for example—is true.
In this section, Henry’s hypocrisy contrasts sharply with Wilson’s sense of security in himself. Having faced battle rather than running from it, Wilson has gained perspective on his own modest place in the universe without shattering his ego. He does not allow his pride to prevent him from asking Henry for the yellow envelope back, though doing so causes him considerable embarrassment. His newfound maturity enables him to temper his earlier propensities for arrogant battle-lust and sniveling self-pity.