Last Updated on June 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 899
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 that includes Jim Conklin, "the tall soldier," whom he has known all his life, and Wilson, "the loud soldier," who constantly struts and brags. Most characters in the novel remain unnamed except for epithets such as these, Henry's identification with his companions is not strong enough to give him a sense of community with them. The regiment is often pictured as a powerful organism breathing, snorting, and shooting flames like a dragon.
The regiment goes into action after its long period of inactivity, and although Henry is relieved in a sense, his anxieties soon increase. When the enemy forces make their first charge, Henry's training helps him perform in the accepted manner; he and the regiment stand their ground, and the enemy is repelled. But all too soon a second charge is under way. The tired men of the 304th Regiment resume firing, but soon many of them throw down their rifles and run. Panic-stricken, Henry also heads for the rear, running "like a blindman" and crashing into trees.
As his panic subsides, Henry rationalizes his desertion: He has behaved in a highly reasonable fashion; he has saved the U.S. government a piece of valuable equipment, himself; and he has followed the dictate of nature, which bids every creature to protect itself. Guilt-ridden despite his rationalizations, Henry falls in with some wounded men who have been forced to seek shelter in the rear. He finds the company of the wounded preferable to that of his own regiment, which he hopes has been soundly defeated, for its defeat would vindicate him completely.
But Henry's conscience undergoes further assault when he notices a man referred to as a "spectral soldier," walking as if he were a dead man looking for a grave. Henry suddenly realizes that this mortally wounded soldier is Jim Conklin, his best friend. Henry, hysterical with grief, promises to take care of his friend, but Jim recognizes Henry only for a moment before he shakes off Henry's hand. In a fit of panic, Jim runs from the road into a field, where he convulses and dies as Henry looks on helplessly.
Henry later suffers a head wound when a frightened deserter unexpectedly hits him with the butt of his rifle. An unnamed friendly soldier leads Henry back to his regiment, where Wilson, previously known as the "loud soldier," is on sentinel duty. Henry finds that Wilson has matured from a swaggering braggart to a quietly confident soldier. Wilson and the corporal who examine Henry assume that he has been shot. The wound is Henry's means of entry back into the military society, and he realizes that this is the only society available to him.
After Henry's cover story has been accepted, his remorse practically disappears. He still worries that his cowardice will be exposed, but his ego has been restored. No longer an isolated wanderer in the company of the wounded and dying, Henry learns to take pride in his regiment and in his own ability to contribute to the war effort. Going into battle he fights like a madman, firing so furiously that he wins the admiration of his fellow soldiers. Henry becomes less self-centered as he begins to identify with Wilson and the other soldiers, and he finds the strength of purpose to atone for his earlier cowardice.
Throughout Henry's transformation, Crane emphasizes that coming of age involves an awareness of and concern for others. Henry learns that he is a person of contradictory impulses and actions, at times brave, at times cowardly, and this knowledge allows him to identify with the society around him. He thinks of others as well as himself; his is no longer an egocentric universe.
But Crane is careful not to present war as a simple rite of passage; he emphasizes that war brings out the most horrible aspects of life. War indeed tests souls, but in the process it ruins more men than it converts to higher ideals. Although the survivors of war were sometimes stronger, more compassionate men, Crane could never reconcile this phenomenon with the horror and the suffering of innocent creatures everywhere. Henry is able to change, but Crane himself never came to terms with a God who could tolerate wars.