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Terrified that his fellow soldiers will revile him for
fleeing from the battle, Henry totters toward the fire. He navigates
his way past the bodies of his sleeping comrades with great difficulty.
Suddenly a loud voice instructs him to halt. Henry recognizes Wilson
standing guard. He informs Wilson that he has been shot in the head
after being separated from the regiment and fighting with another
group. His friend immediately turns him over to the corporal. The
corporal examines him and decides that Henry has been grazed by
a shell, which has left little more than a lump: “jest as if some
feller had lammed yeh on th’ head with a club.” Wearily, Henry watches
the camp until Wilson returns with a canteen of coffee. He nurses Henry,
tending to his head with a wet cloth and giving him his blanket
for the night. Grateful and dazed, Henry drifts off to sleep.
Henry wakes in the gray, misty dawn, feeling as though
he has been “asleep for a thousand years.” In the distance he hears
the roar of fighting which rumbles around him with a “deadly persistency.” Looking
around at his sleeping comrades, Henry believes for a moment that
he is surrounded by dead men and cries out in anguish. When the
bugle blows, however, the men get up slowly. Wilson asks Henry how
he feels as he tends to his head. “Pretty bad,” Henry replies. As
Wilson tends to Henry, Henry notices a change in his friend: he
is no longer the loud soldier, that sensitive and prickly youth
obsessed with his own sense of valor. Instead, he seems to have
acquired a quiet, but remarkable, confidence. The two men discuss
the battle, and Henry reports that Jim Conklin is dead. A group
of soldiers exchanges harsh words near Henry and Wilson, nearly
coming to blows. Wilson intervenes, keeps the peace, and returns
to Henry. He says that the regiment lost more than half of its men
the day before, but that many of them have since returned—they scattered
in the woods, he reports, and fought with other regiments, just
He had performed his mistakes in the
dark, so he was still a man.
See Important Quotations Explained
He had performed his mistakes in the
dark, so he was still a man.
Henry remembers the yellow envelope that Wilson had asked
to be delivered to his family upon his death. He is about to remind
Wilson of it, but thinks better of this at the last moment. He believes
that having the envelope—an emblem of Wilson’s past vulnerability—will
enable him to deflect any unpleasant questions Wilson might ask
about Henry’s activities during the previous day. For Henry, the envelope
becomes an insurance policy against being caught in a lie, and his
self-assurance is restored. He does not worry about the battles
ahead of him, thinking that he is “doomed to greatness” and cannot
be killed. He feels scorn for his comrades who ran from the battle
the previous day, thinking that they fled more wildly than was necessary,
while he himself “fled with discretion and dignity.”
Wilson interrupts Henry’s reverie by asking him for the
envelope back. Henry returns it, and Wilson seems deeply embarrassed. Henry
feels sorry for his friend and immensely superior to him; he imagines
telling his mother and a young lady from his hometown stories of
the war, and thinks that his tales will shatter their feeble preconceptions
of heroism and combat.
In preparing Henry for his next experience in battle,
these three chapters focus almost entirely on his vanity, hypocrisy,
and unfounded sense of superiority, which escalate by Chapter XV
to an almost unbearable degree. As the narrative progresses, Henry allows
the opinions of his peers to determine not only his sense of moral
behavior, but also his very sense of truth. He feels no guilt upon
discovering that his shameful injury can pass as a respect-inspiring,
combat-inflicted wound. Furthermore, even though he ran while Wilson
fought, Henry feels superior to his friend when he remembers the
yellow envelope, which he considers concrete proof of Wilson’s cowardice.
Without such proof to mark his own downfall, and with the validation
of his wound as a testament to his alleged courage, Henry feels
invincible: “He had performed his mistakes in the dark, so he was
still a man.” Though his main experience of war so far has been
running from it, Henry demonstrates his stomach-turning vanity by
imagining that he will soon regale the women in his life with his
shocking and moving stories of battle.
Through such developments, Crane explores Henry’s
nearly limitless powers of self-delusion. In his desperate need
to rebuild his shattered sense of importance, Henry blocks the coming
battle out of his mind, content instead to rest upon his unearned
laurels. Though he has yet to prove himself, Henry believes that
he is destined to do great deeds. He is certain that fate, God,
or the universe—the utter indifference of which has so recently
shocked him—will keep him alive and thriving. Crane uses these passages to
reveal the complex subtleties of man’s instinctual impulse to survive,
linking it to less excusable behaviors induced by self-deception
Throughout The Red Badge of Courage, vanity
and self-deception prove to be the mind’s most successful strategy
for coping with the extraordinary fragility and insignificance of
human life. If not for self-delusion, the dangers one faces would
drive one mad; if not for vanity, one’s own unimportance would drive
one to despair. Part of the instinct to survive hinges on the individual’s
belief in the importance of his own survival, the preciousness of
his life. As a result of fleeing the dangers of war and the despair
that follows them, Henry has come face to face with his own insignificance,
and reacts in the only way available to him. To maintain control
over his fears, he lies to those around him and then convinces himself
that whatever they believe—that he is courageous, for example—is
In this section, Henry’s hypocrisy contrasts sharply with
Wilson’s sense of security in himself. Having faced battle rather
than running from it, Wilson has gained perspective on his own modest
place in the universe without shattering his ego. He does not allow
his pride to prevent him from asking Henry for the yellow envelope
back, though doing so causes him considerable embarrassment. His
newfound maturity enables him to temper his earlier propensities
for arrogant battle-lust and sniveling self-pity.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Red Badge of Courage!