“A Mystery of Heroism” was Stephen Crane’s first published story about war. In this story, a young soldier named Fred Collins must grapple with his previously conceived definitions of heroism.
As the story opens, a battle in an unnamed war is raging all around Fred. Two armies are in the midst of a savage confrontation. Cannons are blasting the fields, uprooting the sod in huge clumps of earth. Gunshots exploding from both sides appear as “monstrous” bolts of lightning. Horses and soldiers who are caught in the middle have fallen to the ground. As this is going on, Fred Collins states that he wishes he had a drink and wonders if there is some source of water near him.
In the distance, what remains of a house leans in splinters; portions have been torn by shells as well as the axes of soldiers seeking firewood. The well-house off to the side is still smoldering. Farther away, a “frightful duel” is taking place. The men in Fred’s company watch and listen to the sights and sounds of the battle. Officers shout as the white-legged, uniformed soldiers run one way and then another. The sound of steel upon steel echoes across the field. When an officer from another regiment rides by in his horse, the man notices how carefully he holds his right arm in his left hand, as if the arm does not belong to him and might fall away from his body. The man’s face is dirty and wet with perspiration. Ironically, he smiles grimly when he notices the soldiers looking at him.
Again Fred states that he wishes he had a drink. When he stares across at the all-but-destroyed house, he adds that he bets the old well still has water in it. Someone agrees but asks Fred how he plans on getting it; the meadow between them and the house is under heavy fire. The wounded officer on the horse exclaims that the enemy is shooting at the field as if it were filled with soldiers, which it is not. Just then, a large shell explodes on the house, lowering even more of it to the ground.
Someone teases Fred, asking him why he does not go get some water if he is so thirsty. The wounded officer on the horse is hit with yet another shell. He falls from his horse and lies with his face pointed to the ground, one foot still in the stirrup of his saddle. His horse is on its side and looks dead. Shells are still falling all around them. Fred is not paying much attention to the officer. Rather, he is busy arguing with his fellow soldiers, who are teasing him about running across to the bombed-out house. He tells them he is not afraid to go. Then he sees his captain and goes to the officer to ask permission to go. The captain asks if Fred can wait. Fred says he cannot. The captain explains that he thinks it is foolish but if it is what Fred wants to do, he should take some of his comrades’ canteens with him and fill them all up.
As he crosses the field, Fred feels as if he is in a dream. He can barely believe he is walking out there so unprotected. He has little understanding of why he felt compelled to get the water; he was not that thirsty. He also wonders...
(The entire section is 887 words.)