The Veteran Summary
“The Veteran” is an 1896 short story by Stephen Crane about Henry Fleming, a war veteran whose tranquil life is disrupted when he is summoned to a final act of valor.
- Henry Fleming recounts his wartime experiences to other members of his community, including his idealistic young grandson, Jimmie. Henry is open about the fear he felt in battle.
- Later, a barn fire breaks out on Henry’s property. Henry risks his life to save the animals inside, as his farmhands work to fight the fire.
- Learning that two horses are still trapped, Henry plunges into the flaming barn once more.
Last Updated on December 2, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 808
At the beginning of Stephen Crane’s “The Veteran,” Henry Fleming is recounting one of his old war stories to an audience in the rural community where he lives. One of his listeners asks him if he saw his enemies clearly and he responds by saying that, to him, the battlefield was merely an assemblage of fast-moving figures. He would just simply aim at the densest part of the crowd. The grocer then asks whether Henry ever felt fear during the war. Henry replies that he actually felt very scared, especially during his first battle. This revelation prompts laughter out of his audience, as it strikes them as strange and wonderful that a distinguished war veteran like him could admit to such vulnerability. Their opinion of Henry is not lowered, because they know he served as an orderly sergeant during the war; they are unaware of the significance of the rank, assuming it to be highly prestigious.
Henry then reveals that he felt that all of the soldiers from the opposing side were shooting at him—only him—during his first battle. He humorously remarks that he wanted to tell the enemy soldiers what a “good fellow” he was; being unable to do so, he ran instead. His first battle, he discloses, took place at Chancellorsville. Finally, Henry states that fighting was something he had to get used to, whereas some of his peers, such as Jimmy Conklin, went into war as if they were born to fight.
Henry’s grandson Jimmie, who is sitting by his feet, feels troubled at this series of revelations. Because he looks up to his grandfather as a brave soldier, Henry’s stories leave him horrified. As the two walk home, Jimmie sullenly kicks at the rocks and dandelions by his feet. Henry then turns his grandson’s attention to the Sickles’ colt in the nearby meadow and asks him if he would want a similar horse. Jimmie doesn’t answer the question and instead proceeds to ask his grandfather if he truly meant what he said about the battle. Henry confirms that he indeed felt scared during his first battle and ran. This disappoints Jimmie deeply and injures his romantic notions of war. Henry asks one more time if Jimmie would like the Sickles’ colt and the latter sulkily replies that it’s not as nice as the one they already have.
One of Henry’s hired men, the Swede, goes out for a night of drinking. Henry retires to his bed after calming some of the rambunctious young farmhands. He is soon wakened, however, by a loud pounding at the kitchen door. The Swede enters and drunkenly yells that the barn is on fire. Snapping to attention, Henry yells at the foot of the stairs and summons all the farmhands. Not one noticed Henry’s wife standing outside their bedroom, frantically asking them what was going on.
The men run outside and find the Swede’s lantern overturned in front of the barn doors. They hear the animals trampling and panicking from inside of the barn. Henry throws open the doors and sees the fire travelling quickly up the walls. His hired hands collect all the farm’s pails and run to the well; they are frustrated that the old well doles out water so slowly. Meanwhile, Henry runs inside the barn with a knife, tosses a blanket over one of the mares, and proceeds to cut its halter. Upon leading the mare out to safety, he runs back in, eventually freeing five horses. He exits the barn with his clothes on fire and his hair almost all gone. Henry’s men throw pails of water on him before he continues down to the basement of the barn, where they keep the cows tied to the stanchions. One of the farmhands remarks that Henry seems to have incurred a limp, perhaps from a blow dealt by one of the panic-struck horses.
Down at the basement of the barn, Henry finds that the cows have entangled themselves in their halters. The farmhands hurriedly help Henry with untangling the ropes. When Henry releases one of the cows, it crashes into the Swede. The Swede, who was clutching an empty milk pail, drops it and collapses on the ground. Henry promptly fends off the cow and drags the Swede outside. Finally, they manage to save all the cows except one which would not move.
As the men stand panting and watching the rest of the barn burn, the Swede comes to his senses and yells that they forgot to save the colts: two black ones at the back of the barn. Against the protests of his men, Henry Fleming rushes back and enters the burning wreckage. The roof then suddenly collapses in on itself, releasing a great trail of smoke into the sky.
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