The men are led to a group of trenches where Wilson promptly falls asleep. For a time, rumors fly fast and fierce as to the conduct of the battle and the activities of the enemy. Briefly, Henry glimpses a column of gray-suited enemy soldiers, and his regiment is quickly marched into the forest. Henry begins complaining bitterly about his army’s leadership, blaming the generals for their failure to win battles. When another soldier mocks him, however, Henry falls silent, afraid that he will be exposed as a fraud. The lieutenant shepherds the men to a spot in the woods, where he says they will encounter the enemy in only a few minutes. As the battle roar swells to a thunder, the men wearily await the fight.
After a maddening and intense period of waiting for the inevitable, the enemy sweeps down upon the line of blue-uniformed men. Seized by a feverish hatred of the enemy, Henry fights in a frenzy, firing and reloading and refusing to retreat. In the heat and smoke, he is aware of nothing but his own rage. After a while, he hears one of his comrades laughing and realizes that he is firing at nothing; the battle is over, the enemy has fled. His regiment now regards Henry with awe, regaling him with stories of his ferocious prowess in the combat. The lieutenant tells Henry that if he had ten thousand “wildcats” like him, he could win the war in a week. Strangely, Henry feels as though he himself had nothing to do with his brave exploits; rather, it was as if he fell asleep and woke to find himself a knight. The exultant soldiers congratulate one another happily, and chatter about how many men the enemy lost in the battle. In the bright blue sky, the sun shines gaily, marred only by a cloud of dark smoke from the fighting.
Although he has no firsthand knowledge of battle at the beginning of this chapter, Henry persists in his self-congratulatory and undeservedly condescending behavior by criticizing the generals as incompetents. Now that a battle is again imminent, however, some of Henry’s comfortable security seems to dissipate. He again begins to worry—not about his personal safety this time, but about the possibility of being exposed as a fraud. Though he has been willing to let the views of his companions determine—and even replace—his own perception of truth, Henry remains uncomfortably conscious of the fact that he is involved in an elaborate lie.
Though it mainly offers brief, impressionistic snapshots of battle and does not deeply involve the main themes of the novel, Chapter XVII is, in many ways, the turning point in The Red Badge of Courage. Henry’s emotions during this third skirmish change from terror to blind rage, and as he fights he becomes the wildest and fiercest soldier in the regiment. Again, it is important to note that Henry’s transformation has little to do with conventional notions of bravery; he does not consciously become a better soldier by renewing his commitment to the Union cause and mustering up his courage. Instead, his self-awareness—that wellspring of vanity, selfishness, and misguided judgments—suddenly vanishes just as it did in the first battle. Unlike that engagement, however, Henry no longer feels that he is part of a machine. He simply loses himself in a wild fury directed at himself for having behaved like a coward, at the universe for its indifference, and at the enemy. One can argue that even at this point, Henry’s narcissism still serves as his primary motivation for behaving like the hero he dreams of being; the ideals of the Union army could not compel him to fight as fiercely as his own frustration with his earlier gutlessness.
Still, knowledge of his successful participation in battle begins to calm Henry’s hypersensitivity to, and dependence on, the opinions of his peers. Whereas Henry once eagerly reveled in any word of praise from his comrades, even unjustified ones, he now seems to distrust their accolades which do not correspond to his own recollection of the fighting. He perceives that the reality of war does not match its mythology: “By this struggle he had overcome obstacles which he had admitted to be mountains. They had fallen like paper peaks, and he was now what he called a hero. And he had not been aware of the process.” After this battle, Henry is able to trust that he has performed real and important deeds. While this realization does not restore his belief in the relevance of humanity’s arbitrary moral conventions to the indifferent universe, it does commence the painstaking process of his maturation, as he feels the satisfaction of knowing that he has done right.