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.
The novel transfers its attention from the psychology of Henry to that of the regiment as a whole. As the men fight together and grow experienced in combat, the narrative begins to characterize them as a single individual: “The regiment snorted and blew. Among some stolid trees it began to falter and hesitate.” Henry does remain the central focus of the novel. However, rather than analyze his every thought and feeling, Crane emphasizes his role in the group of men around him, even though he does not experience the same group-consciousness that he felt during his first battle. This shift is a moral triumph as it marks a departure from Henry’s self-possessed, narcissistic tendencies. As Henry is freed from the agonies of considering his every move, so too is the reader. As Henry gives himself fully to the battle—displaying a newfound dedication to his fellow soldiers and, therefore—one witnesses his formerly adolescent character, once so selfishly focused, bloom into that of a generous and honorable man.
The underlying idea is that men in dangerous situations form close bonds and often act and think as one, a theme Crane explored explicitly in his story “The Open Boat.” Here, he explores this idea indirectly through Henry’s relationships with Wilson and the lieutenant, and by the shift in his sensitivities and priorities. Where he once was thin-skinned about his own prowess, he now takes offense at insults directed at the regiment as a whole, as when the derisive officer labels him and his companions “mule drivers.”
The relevance of noise and silence comes to the foreground in these later chapters as the intensity of battle heightens. The novel is alive with the sounds of combat, which Crane variously describes as “a terrific fracas” and “splintering and blaring.” Toward the end of the novel, however, a silence seeps into the atmosphere, anticipating the lovely, almost idyllic sense of peace with which the novel closes. Wilson transforms from “the loud soldier” into a man who shows “a quiet belief in his purpose and his abilities.” Henry eventually reaches a similar maturity, no longer craving the loud rumors and reassurances of other men. He soon leaves the frantic and empty chatter of boyhood behind for a quieter brand of manhood.