Throughout the novel, Crane refers to Henry as “the young soldier” and “the youth.” Both the best and worst characteristics of Henry’s youth mark him. Unlike the veteran soldiers whom he encounters during his first battle, Henry is not jaded. He believes, albeit naïvely, in traditional models of courage and honor, and romanticizes the image of dying in battle by invoking the Greek tradition of a dead soldier being laid upon his shield. On the other hand, because he is young, Henry has yet to experience enough to test these abstractions. As a result, his most passionate convictions are based on little else than fantasies, making him seem vain and self-centered.
Henry’s reasons for wanting to win glory in battle are far from noble. The philosophical underpinnings of the war do not motivate him; neither does any deeply held, personal sense of right and wrong. Instead, Henry desires a reputation. He hopes that an impressive performance on the battlefield will immortalize him as a hero among men who, because of the domesticating effects of religion and education, rarely distinguish themselves so dramatically. Ironically, after fleeing from battle, Henry feels little guilt about invoking his own intelligence in order to justify his cowardice. He condemns the soldiers who stayed to fight as imbeciles who were not “wise enough to save themselves from the flurry of death.” This is how he restores his fragile self-pride. When Henry returns to camp and lies about the nature of his wound, he doubts neither his manhood nor his right to behave as pompously as a veteran. Henry’s lack of a true moral sense manifests itself in the emptiness of the honor and glory that he seeks. He feels no responsibility to earn these accolades. If others call him a hero, he believes he is one.
When Henry finally faces battle, however, he feels a “temporary but sublime absence of selfishness.” A great change occurs within him: as he fights, he loses his sense of self. No longer is he interested in winning the praise and attention of other men; instead, he allows himself to disappear into the commotion and become one component of a great fighting machine. As Henry finds himself deeply immersed in battle, the importance of winning a name for himself fades with the gun smoke, for “it was difficult to think of reputation when others were thinking of skins.” It is ironic, then, that Henry establishes his reputation at these very moments. Officers who witness his fierce fighting regard him as one of the regiment’s best. Henry does not cheat his way to the honor that he so desperately craves when the novel opens; instead, he earns it. This marks a tremendous growth in Henry’s character. He learns to reflect on his mistakes, such as his earlier retreat, without defensiveness or bravado, and abandons the hope of blustery heroism for a quieter, but more satisfying, understanding of what it means to be a man.