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Stephen Crane's "A Mystery of Heroism" is one his best, if not the best, short stories set in the Civil War, and in many ways, it is reminiscent of the Civil War stories of Ambrose Bierce in its use of irony and visual detail.
The image of the artillery men dressed in white duck trousers creates, among other things, one of the classic ironies of the Civil War. On the one hand, we are presented with the image of the artillery troops:
The men of the battery wore white duck trousers, which somehow emphasised their legs: and when they
ran and crowded in little groups at the bidding of the shouting officers, it was more impressive than usual to the infantry.
This observation is being made by men of the infantry who are lying as flat on the ground as possible (to avoid being shot or killed by a shell) and whose own uniforms "almost seemed a part of the clay bank which shielded them from the shells." Crane establishes one of the great incongruities of this war in that troops who are separated from each other only by thirty or forty yards experience the war in vastly different ways--the infantry in the dirt with uniforms that take on the color of the earth, and the artillery men who can run around in white trousers.
Early in the Civil War, several Federal and Confederate units wore uniforms with white trousers. Because white was such a visible color on any battlefield, white uniforms became known as "aiming stakes"--that is, the whiteness caught the eye of enemy shooters and drew fire. Troops wearing white soon learned to cover the white with dirt in order to avoid becoming an obvious target. Officers who rode white horses also learned that riding black or brown horses increased their chances of survival.
Crane's use of white trousers for the artillery accomplishes two important things: 1) even though the infantry troops and artillery troops are physically near each other, they operate in very different worlds on the battlefield; and 2) in an ironic way, the first serious casualty we see is a lieutenant from the artillery battery, who is seen holding his left arm in his right hand, and this is Crane's way of telling us that white trousers did not alter anyone's fate in this grim war.
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