The protagonist of the novel, Henry Fleming--"the Youth"--remains in constant transition throughout the course of The Red Badge of Courage. It is the story of Henry's transformation from naive farm boy into a man. He begins as a boy desirous of the exciting life that he believes the military will bring. Before he sees his first action, he is cautious and uncertain, especially of how he will behave once under fire. When he does face combat for the first time, he deserts his regiment, running away when the action "gets too hot," just as he worried he might. He spends the better part of the day dejected, knowing that he will be branded a coward by his comrades--a label that he knows will follow him for the rest of his life. But when he returns with a head injury (received by the rifle butt from a fellow Union infantryman), it is mistaken for a bullet wound. His secret safe, Henry brims with overconfidence the next day. He discounts his "skedaddling" as a momentary lapse, and he compares himself with other heroes of war. When he next faces a Confederate charge, he surprises even himself by moving beyond his line, into the face of the enemy. His lieutenant and the rest of the company are impressed; but this time, Henry doesn't let his actions go to his head. Looking about the dead and wounded, he realistically understands that he could also sustain a "little red badge," but he no longer fears his enemy, nor does he consider them invincible "dragons." Likewise, he recognizes his own mortality and limitations.
With this conviction came a store of assurance. He felt a quiet manhood, non–assertive but of sturdy and strong blood. He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point. He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.
He had rid himself of the red sickness of battle. The sultry nightmare was in the past. He had been an animal... He turned now with a lover's thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks—an existence of soft and eternal peace.