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As the Union troops rest, the fighting deeper in the forest intensifies until the air is parched with smoke and the battle-roar drowns out all other sounds. During a sudden lull in the battle, the men hear one of their comrades, Jimmie Rogers, crying out in pain. Thinking there is a stream nearby, Wilson offers to go for water and Henry accompanies him. They fail to find a stream, but reach a place from which they can see a large portion of the battle as it unfolds. They see dark masses of blue troops slowly gather into formation. They watch as a general nearly tramples a wounded man. As the general and his staff pass by, they hear the commanders discussing how best to fortify a weak position. The general asks one officer which unit he can spare; the officer replies that the only regiment he does not need is the 304th—Henry’s regiment—because its members “fight like a lot ’a mule drivers.”
Henry and Wilson, who had believed their regiment to be unstoppable, are shocked to hear it insulted. They are further stunned to hear the general tell the officer that he expects most of the 304th to be killed in the coming attack. The two friends hurry back to their comrades with the news that they are about to charge. As the officers organize the men into marching formation, Henry and Wilson consider what they have heard. They do not taint the resolve of the other soldiers with their pathetic news, but instead keep the secret to themselves. Nevertheless, they prepare for the charge with quiet resignation.
The men lumber forward toward a line of enemy soldiers. Henry sees men pounded by bullets, splayed and tumbling in grotesque shapes. As the men charge, the regiment comes to a halt twice, until the lieutenant once again spurs them into motion. The bullets continue to fly and Henry notices the regiment’s flag flying before him. He begins to follow it as if it were a sacred talisman. Suddenly, the color sergeant—the soldier responsible for carrying the flag, is hit and falls to his knees. Henry and Wilson pry the flag from his dead fingers and continue to charge.
In these chapters, and for the rest of the novel, Crane focuses less on thematic exploration and more on the graphic depiction of battle. Henry’s character has endured its initial shock and is now prepared to complete its development from innocence into experience, from vanity into self-assurance, from cowardice into courage. The ensuing battle proves the testing ground for Henry’s character and enables the realization of this journey.
The descriptions of war in these late chapters are a marvel, becoming increasingly violent and strikingly poetic as the book nears its conclusion:
The little flames of rifles leaped from [the clump of trees]. The song of the bullets was in the air and shells snarled among the tree-tops. One tumbled directly into the middle of a hurrying group and exploded in crimson fury. There was an instant’s spectacle of a man, almost over it, throwing up his hands to shield his eyes.
Other men, punched by bullets, fell in grotesque agonies. The regiment left a coherent trail of bodies.
The dramatic, repulsive quality of this passage illustrates man’s pitiable smallness in the face of overpowering, all-consuming war, but simultaneously hints at the heroism that simply facing such cataclysmic horror requires.
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