While there is no doubt that the conflict depicted in Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage is the American Civil War – the context in which Crane lived and wrote, the details of scenery and battle and, as importantly, the reference to actual Civil War sites (“All quiet on the Rappahannock”) all indicate that the Civil War is the setting – his noted rejection of any specific reference to that war served his purpose. The Red Badge of Courage is an anti-war novel that was intended as an indictment of ALL war, not just the one he portrays. Note in the following quotes from early in his novel that Crane’s descriptions of his protagonist, Henry Fleming’s, thoughts and observations reflect the universality of those observations:
“Various veterans had told him tales. Some talked of gray, bewhiskered hordes who were advancing with relentless curses and chewing tobacco with unspeakable valor; tremendous bodies of fierce soldiery who were sweeping along like the Huns. Others spoke of tattered and eternally hungry men who fired despondent powders. . .However, he perceived now that it did not greatly matter what kind of soldiers he was going to fight, so long as they fought, which fact no one disputed.”
“But here he was confronted with a thing of moment. It had suddenly appeared to him that perhaps in a battle he might run. He was forced to admit that as far as war was concerned he knew nothing of himself.”
Other than the reference to “powders,” as in the gun powder used in Civil War-era rifles and explosives, these passages could be applied to any war from the preceding or following centuries. Indeed, the reference to “Huns,” a nomadic people from many centuries earlier and native to Eastern and Central Europe, and whose moniker would later be derisively applied to German soldiers during the world wars to come, enhances the universal theme for which Crane was striving. By not labeling the conflict, despite its obvious identity, Crane was making his argument for the broad application of the themes of innocence, cowardice, and bravery, and for the inherent inhumanity in war, prevalent throughout his novel without potentially detracting from that objective by giving name to the conflict in which his story takes place.