If I have one vivid memory of high school junior English class, it would be the classic coming-of-age assignment of The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. In the spring, anyone could spot a sophomore, because inevitably each and every one of us was carrying our paperback edition of the classic novel about the Civil War. It was assigned at the same time we were studying the Civil War in American history.
Crane published the novel in 1895, two years after he’d published the book that put him on the American literary map – Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, the story of a prostitute. Crane belonged to the Naturalist, Realist, Symbolist, or Impressionist School, depending upon which critic you ask. The story of a prostitute had not been done before, at least not in a way that made Maggie something of a heroine.
But it was The Red Badge of Courage that turned Crane into an international literary star. The novel tells the story of Henry Fleming, who lives with his mother, who enlists as a private in the Union army. His mother is deadest against him enlisting, and he does one day on his own and then tells her what he’s done.
We follow Fleming in his new army life. Crane depicts the adulation of the townspeople for his patriotism, how much of army life was characterized by waiting, rumors, and boredom, and Fleming’s fear of facing his first battle and behaving as a coward. In his first military engagement, he performs well, and the enemy is sent running in retreat. But the next day, Fleming and his squad face a renewed attack, and this time it’s Fleming and his cohorts who are running in retreat. He finds himself in dense woods, and in of the most memorable scenes in the novel, he stumbles upon the body of a soldier who died in a battle in the same place.
Still in retreat, he learns that the Union side has prevailed and won the battle. He becomes separated from his regiment, and he’s soon hearing the stories from others. The reader sees how courage and cowardice can exist in the same person at the same time. We learn about the universal complaint of all soldiers in every war – the incompetence of commanding officers. And we see that battles and a war are often won less by brilliant military strategy and tactics and more by who can hold out the longest.
What Henry Fleming experienced was life in the army during wartime, and it was (and remains) a far cry from the colorful accounts and government propaganda common to all wars.
In addition to the first two novels, Crane (1871-1900) also published a poetry collection and another novel, based on his experience as a war correspondent during the Spanish-American War. He published several highly regarded short stories, including “The Open Boat” and “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.” With no actual personal war experience, he said that he drew inspiration for The Red Badge of Courage from football games. His short but eventful life ended when he died in England from tuberculosis.
The Red Badge of Courage is a short, intense, and essentially plotless story. It explores the psychology of solders and war, long before the subject became a popular war. It likely influenced every novel about war written after it. And it explored through fiction, the experience of the Civil War, still the deadliest war ever engaged in by America.
Top photograph: An illustration of the First Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861, showing the Connecticut troops standing firm as the battle turns against them.