The men dropped here and there like bundles. The captain of the youth’s company had been killed in an early part of the action. His body lay stretched out in the position of a tired man resting, but upon his face there was an astonished and sorrowful look, as if he thought some friend had done him an ill turn. The babbling man was grazed by a shot that made the blood stream widely down his face. He clapped both hands to his head. “Oh!” he said, and ran. Another grunted suddenly as if a club had struck him in the stomach. He sat down and gazed ruefully. In his eyes there was mute, indefinite reproach. Farther up the line a man, standing behind a tree, had had his knee joint splintered by a ball. Immediately he had dropped his rifle and gripped the tree with both arms. And there he remained, clinging desperately and crying for assistance that he might withdraw his hold upon the tree.
The Red Badge of Courage is filled with graphic and arresting depictions of battle, such as this passage from Chapter V when the 304th Regiment holds off the Confederate charge. This description is noteworthy for its powerful evocation of the chaotic violence of war; the language is precise, sharp, and convincing. It is not difficult to imagine such awful sights as men dropping “like bundles” or a soldier grunting “as if he had been struck by a club in the stomach.” In general, the death of a walk-on character might disturb readers in an abstract way, but it does not always have a lasting impact. It is a testament to Crane’s writing, then, that he manages to wring such pathos from the death of a nameless captain. Even though the reader is not familiar with this man, the misery expressed by his “sorrowful look, as if he thought some friend had done him an ill turn” leaves an indelible impression.
The image of the soldier with the shattered knee, clinging desperately to a tree and calling for help, invokes the theme of the universe’s fundamental disregard for human suffering. Time and again, Henry encounters a natural world that is deaf to the agonies of human beings, a realization that makes the striving for public glory seem petty and foolish.