The Red Badge of Courage Essays and Criticism
by Stephen Crane

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Crane's Portrayal of War

(Novels for Students)

Stephen Crane's Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, is remarkable in two ways: it is a quintessential coming-of-age story, and it is written in a style so original that many consider it to be the first modern American novel. Though written thirty years after the Civil War, in 1895, by a young man who had never seen warfare, Crane captured not only the disorientation and chaos of the battlefield, but found completely original ways to describe a foot soldier's experience. And though The Red Badge of Courage is part of a long tradition of war narratives, which extends from Homer's The Iliad to Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, Crane departed from that tradition by presenting war from the point of view of a single ignorant private. No effort is made to characterize war as noble, death as glorious, or soldiers as particularly brave or admirable. Instead, The Red Badge of Courage is a study of the interior life of a young man, Henry Fleming, who is in turn confused, terrified, humiliated, and, ultimately, matured by his exposure to pitched battle.

Crane's strategy in The Red Badge of Courage is to create a sense of chaos and helplessness by withholding from the reader information that the common soldier would not have known. Henry Fleming does not know where he is at any time. It seems to the characters, as to the reader, that Fleming and his fellow soldiers are being arbitrarily moved around in mysterious patterns that suit the generals but mean nothing to the soldiers in the ranks. Scholars have determined from internal evidence, however, that Crane set his story during the Battle of Chancellorsville which took place from May 2 to May 6,1863, near the little town of Chancellorsville, Virginia, and not far from Fredricksburg. Understanding something of that battle offers a useful perspective on Henry Fleming's odyssey to manhood, and on the settings in which each of his adventures takes place.

The Battle of Chancellorsville was fought between the Army of the Potomac, led by the Union general loseph Hooker, and the Confederate army led by Robert E. Lee. The town was near the Rappahannock River and surrounded by a pine scrub forest called "The Wilderness " A great deal of the fighting took place in this forest, which accounts for the setting of Henry Fleming's period of desertion, and for the cathedral-like clearing in the woods where he encounters the dead soldier. Many of the skirmishes and encounters between the two armies also took place on the fields between Fredricksburg and the Wilderness. This accounts for the battle scenes in which Henry finds himself running wildly at the enemy over an open plain.

Lee's army was outnumbered by two to one, but his clever maneuvering gave the Rebel army the early advantage. Using his brilliant cavalry division, led by Stonewall Jackson, Lee forced the superior Federal troops into a desperate retreat on the first day of the battle. Henry Fleming sees these retreating soldiers as he approaches the front and fantasizes that the generals are leading them into a trap. He was not far from the truth.

Unfortunately for Lee, Stonewall Jackson received the wound that killed him in this battle, and on the second day the Federals pushed the Rebels back in one of the few bayonet charges of the war. Instead of pressing his advantage, however, General Hooker ordered the Union Army to fall back, allowing Lee to reform his line and continue the fight for another two days. The dismay and distrust that Crane represents among the Federal foot soldiers was felt in real life by the Officers who served under Hooker. According to James M. McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era , upon receiving orders to retreat instead of advance, one of Hooker's officers reported that he believed his commanding officer to be "a whipped man." By the end of the encounter, Lee had triumphed over the Union Army and scored one of the most resounding triumphs of the war. President Lincoln, when told of Hooker's defeat despite his...

(The entire section is 7,628 words.)