Henry Fleming, a young recruit under fire for the first time in an unnamed battle of the Civil War, possibly Chancellorsville. A farm boy whose struggle with his emotions might be that of the eternal recruit in any battle of any war, Henry has dreamed of fighting heroically in “Greeklike” battles. Irritated and unnerved by his regiment’s inactivity, he tortures himself with the fear that he may run away when the actual firing begins. He does so. Sheepishly rejoining his regiment, he learns that his cowardice is not known to his fellow soldiers. In the next attack, he keeps firing after the others have stopped. When a color-bearer falls, he picks up the flag and carries it forward. Later, he hears that the colonel has complimented his fierceness. Henry’s psychological battle with himself is now ended; it has gone from fear to cowardice to bravery and, finally, to egotism.
Jim Conklin, “the tall soldier,” a veteran who comforts Henry and squabbles with the braggart Wilson. He predicts that the regiment is about to move into battle. When it does so, he is mortally wounded. Henry and “the tattered man” find him stumbling to the rear, still on his feet, fearful of falling under the wheels of an artillery wagon. He wanders into a field, as if it were a place of rendezvous with death. Henry and the tattered man follow him, trying to bring him back. He brushes them off and, with a great convulsion, drops dead.
Wilson, “the loud one.” At first, he seems confident, absolutely sure of his courage. As the battle begins, he suddenly thinks he may be killed, and he turns a packet of letters over to Henry Fleming. After the first attack, he asks for the return of the letters. Some of his loudness and swagger is now gone. He and Henry struggle to get the flag from the fallen color-bearer. Henry seizes it, but Wilson aids him in going forward and setting an example to the wavering troops.
“The Tattered Man,”
“The Tattered Man,” a soldier encountered by Henry Fleming just after he has run away. The man embarrasses the recruit by asking where he is wounded. Later, he and Henry follow Jim Conklin into the field. The soldier is so impressed by the manner of Jim’s death that he calls the dead man a “jim-dandy.” Then he cautions Henry to “watch out fer ol’ number one.”
Lieutenant Hasbrouck, a young officer of Henry Fleming’s company. He is shot in the hand in the early part of the battle but is able to drive a fleeing soldier back into the ranks and tries vainly to stop the disorganized retreat. He later compliments Henry and Wilson by calling them “wild cats.”
Colonel MacChesnay, the officer who also compliments Henry Fleming and Wilson. He is berated by the general, shortly after Henry’s advance with the flag, for not forcing the partial success of the charge to a complete one.
War, for Crane, was a favorite metaphor for human life, equally applicable to coal miners ("In the Depths of Coal Mine," 1894) or to the people living in the slums of New York (Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, 1893). Courage and heroism come under Crane's scrutiny in his classic book about wartime, The Red Badge of Courage. Henry has read classical tales of heroism, and dreams of performing brave deeds on the battlefield, but he is deeply worried about what will happen when the regiment finally goes into action. He and his regiment have marched into northern Virginia, but since then have done nothing but wait. His concern is not "How will we men of the 304th New York Regiment do when we go into battle" but "How will I do?" In the course of his self-questioning, he has been "forced to admit that as far as war was concerned he knew nothing of himself." Of course, although Henry does not consider it, all the men around him are also worried about the coming battle and how they will behave under fire.
Henry, more often referred to as "the youth," has a small circle of friends...
(The entire section is 1,406 words.)