After seizing the flag from the fallen color bearer, Henry and Wilson see the regiment slinking back toward them, the enemy having broken their charge. The lieutenant cries out angrily, but the men fall back to a row of trees, relatively safe from the deadly hail of gunfire. After a scuffle, Henry succeeds in pulling the flag away from Wilson, and bears it himself. As the men march across the battlefield, they are pelted with bullets, and surrounded by fortified groups of enemy soldiers. Henry, who entertains the notion of a victory as “a fine revenge upon the officer who had referred to him and his fellows as mule drivers,” mulls with shame and rage that victory is not to be. Still, he holds the flag proudly and urges the men to fight, even though the regiment is in tatters and men are beginning to scatter.
Soon, the enemy is upon Henry’s regiment, which, at the last minute, mounts a respectable defense. Henry comforts himself with the thought that if the enemy is meant to win the battle, their victory will at least not be an easy one. As the 304th fights, he is assured of its confidence in combat. In a pitched battle, Henry’s regiment succeeds in forcing the enemy soldiers to retreat. The spirits of all the men in Henry’s group are uplifted; they feel as though they have regained their capabilities, and proceed with a new enthusiasm.
At last the regiment returns to the fortified position of its army. The other soldiers mock the 304th for stopping “about a hundred feet this side of a very pretty success,” which fills Henry’s group with impotent rage. Looking back across the field from his new position of safety, Henry is astonished to realize that a distance that seemed so great is actually quite small—the line of trees from which he and his companions so perilously made their escape seems ridiculously near. As Henry contemplates this fact, the officer who called the men mule drivers suddenly rides up to the group. Accosting the colonel, he berates the men for their pitiful behavior and calls them “mud diggers.” This enrages the men, and a murmur rises up from the ranks about the incompetence and condescension of the blue army’s commanders.
As the soldiers gripe to one another, a few men approach Henry and Wilson, excitement glowing on their faces. They say that they have overheard the colonel of the regiment talking to the lieutenant about Henry and Wilson: the two soldiers are, in the colonel’s estimation, the best fighters in the regiment. Though they pretend to be uninterested in the report, Henry and Wilson are deeply satisfied and feel a renewed confidence in the war effort.
This praise fortifies Henry for the next battle, which he meets with “serene self-confidence.” The blue and the gray form for “another attack in the pitiless monotony of conflicts.” As the battle rages on, Henry’s regiment thins. Great losses of life and energy hamper the regiment, and Henry loses himself in spectatorship for a while. He can only stand and watch the events around him, but does not feel his idleness: “He did not know that he breathed; that the flag hung silently over him, so absorbed was he.” Henry maintains his resolve not to retreat, regardless of what happens, thinking that his dead body would be the ultimate revenge on the man who called the 304th Regiment “mule drivers” and “mud diggers.” As bullets whir in the air around him, Henry sees the regiment growing starker. Many of the blue soldiers are hit, some falling to the ground in vivid gore. Henry notes that Wilson and the lieutenant are unhurt, but that the regiment’s fire is rapidly weakening.
This short section continues Crane’s withdrawal from the explicit exploration of abstract themes, in favor of a graphic portrayal of battle. It also pushes Crane’s sardonic commentary firmly into the background, as the impressionistic depiction of battle scenes occupies all of Chapter XX. With an incredible economy of language, Crane is able to put the physical and psychological demands of battle into words:
“Where in hell yeh goin’?” the lieutenant was asking in a sarcastic howl. And a red-bearded officer, whose voice of triple brass could plainly be heard, was commanding: “Shoot into ’em! Shoot into ’em, Gawd damn their souls!” There was a mêlée of screeches, in which the men were ordered to do conflicting and impossible things.
Such details as the “voice of triple brass” and “mêlée of screeches” contribute to the general sense of the disorienting bedlam on the battlefield. They are impressionistic in that they evoke a distinct feeling and mood but can be interpreted in various ways.
Using a slightly different tone in Chapter XXII, Crane issues a startlingly convincing portrayal of the graphic violence of battle, one that falls into the genre of realism rather than impressionism:
The orderly sergeant of the youth’s company was shot through the cheeks. Its supports being injured, his jaw hung afar down, disclosing in the wide cavern of his mouth a pulsing mass of blood and teeth. And with it all he made attempts to cry out. In his endeavor there was a dreadful earnestness, as if he conceived that one great shriek would make him well.
With his meticulous attention to gory detail, Crane paints a haunting picture. The inclusion of such details as the manner in which the sergeant’s jaw hangs down and the “pulsing mass of blood and teeth” resonates within the reader’s imagination, and is effective in part because of the journalistic objectivity in which it is narrated.
In Chapter XXI, the regiment’s new cohesion is far from total: Henry and Wilson are insulted by the derisive officer’s disparagement of their regiment, but pleased by the individual praise they have won from their own officers. Henry still places great stock in the opinions of others. While he seems, at some moments, to be coming into a new sense of inner security, at others he retains his old narcissistic vanity, as when he imagines that his own death would be the ultimate revenge on the derisive officer: “It was his idea, vaguely formed, that his corpse would be for those eyes a great and salt reproach.”
Henry’s belief that his death would be significant enough to affect an officer who does not even know his name and who probably does not have the inclination to mourn individual privates, reveals that he has not yet fully internalized the lessons of the first part of the novel. He has encountered hard truths about the indifference of the universe that have somewhat broadened his perspective. Nevertheless, he is still unable to accept the idea that his death would go largely unnoticed. It seems to him—as, Crane implies, it does to every individual—that his own perception is the measure of his existence, and that the end of the individual consciousness would be apocalyptic for the entire world. The fact that Henry’s growth is not complete should not, however, detract from it. Henry has grown considerably. For instance, when the soldiers report to him the colonel’s praise, Henry is able to celebrate his victory with “a secret glance of joy” toward Wilson, a stroke of modesty of which he would have been incapable at the beginning of the novel. It is a testament to the novel’s realism that such a profound and complex change in character is neither immediate or easy.