The Red Badge of Courage

By | April 19, 2020

[April 19, 2020]  Today, I would like to take a moment to discuss the novel, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)1 and link ideas in this fictional account of war to modern thinking on soldiering.  As a young teenager, I discovered an old paperback copy stuffed in the back of my grandfather’s tool shed.  My grandfather was born in 1893.  The pages were dog-eared, oil-stained, and yet it somehow attracted me.

I’d never heard of the novel before, despite having an excellent formal education.  I read it in a few days, and at the time, I was emotionally unfazed by it.  Not until many years later, after spending time in the U.S. Army Infantry, did I come back to the book and reread it.  Here are some of my thoughts about the novel.

The novel’s setting is the U.S. Civil War and is about a young 18-year-old soldier of the Union Army, Henry Fleming.  He flees the field of his first battle with a family friend, fearing for his life.  Overcome with shame, he longs for a wound in battle, a “red badge of courage,” to offset his cowardice.  He returns to his unit but not identified as a deserter.  When Fleming’s infantry regiment once again faces the Confederate enemy, he acts as the standard-bearer, carrying the flag and redeeming himself.

Unknown to me at the time, my great-great-grandfather was a standard-bearer at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.  These men were targeted by the enemy and rewarded for killing those who held the nation’s flag.  If you carried the standard (or flag of the Union or the Regimental flag), you held the most honored and most dangerous position in the unit.

The novel addresses the themes prevalent in war, not that unknown elsewhere when people are in precarious circumstances or must make a decision to affect them and others for a lifetime.  Several of the novel’s themes are:

  • Maturation
  • Manhood
  • Duty and Honor
  • Heroism
  • Cowardice
  • Redemption
  • Terror of the battlefield

Years later, my friends and I would go into battle on a more modern battlefield with the power of the U.S. military with us.  We were inwardly intimidated by what we might do or not do.  Those concerns were in our minds just as those of Henry Fleming.

“It rained. The procession of weary soldiers became a bedraggled train, despondent and muttering, marching with churning effort in a trough of liquid brown mud under a low, wretched sky. Yet the youth smiled, for he saw that the world was a world for him, though many discovered it to be made of oaths and walking sticks. He had rid himself of the red sickness of battle. The sultry nightmare was in the past. He had been an animal blistered and sweating in the heat and pain of war. He turned now with a lover’s thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks, an existence of soft and eternal peace. Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds.”

The novel’s author Stephen Crane was lauded for his ability to describe battle scenes.  Yet, having never been in a war, he explained that fighting in a war is a “hereditary instinct, and I wrote intuitively.”  The novel is worth a read anytime.  It is short and not easily read by a modern reader used to the straightforward writing style of today.  A couple of years ago, I found that old torn copy originally owned by my grandfather, the 1951 edition.  It has a place of honor in my bookshelf.

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  1. The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane, published in 1895 but also serialized in newspapers in 1894. It remains in print today.
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

19 thoughts on “The Red Badge of Courage

  1. Autistic Techie

    Wow, this article certainly took me back in time to my High School years. We read this book and created a short play out of it in our Drama Course. Much appreciated reading this. Thanks, Gen. Satterfield.

  2. Mr. T.J. Asper

    Excellent theme today with the novel “The Red Badge of Courage.” I would be willing to bet that no one actually knew that the “read badge” was a wound by the enemy that showed you were in battle. That is why in the US military, that the Purple Heart is such an honored award.

    1. Doc Blackshear

      I bet you assigned this novel for your High School kids!

  3. Otto Z. Zuckermann

    Thanks Gen. Satterfield. Excellent article and appreciated. Your article gave me the motivation to go out and buy an older copy of the book for my library (as small as my library is). The novel is a short read. Keep up the great work you are doing.

  4. Kenny Foster

    Here is hoping all of you are well during this pandemic. So many people are infected and many have died. A real tragedy when much of it could have been avoided. The story today from Gen. Satterfield is about a young man who grows up quick in battle. We see many states of emotion and wonder what we would do under similar circumstances. This novel does parallel much of what is happening today with the pandemic. We are learning to “grow up” if we haven’t yet (like many millennials) and are learning about leadership (which is another theme of the novel). Have a great weekend and enjoy the upcoming summer.

    1. Wendy Holmes

      I agree that LEADERSHIP is another theme. In fact, I think this is one of the leading themes.

      1. Eric Coda

        Yes, right on. I do think Gen. Satterfield covered it with the theme of ‘courage.’ Maybe not, but we should be very specific. Henry Fleming leads the charge upon enemy lines next to his lieutenant and carries the standard into that battle.

      2. Bryan Lee

        I agree too. Leadership is a theme. But I do really like today’s article. Why? We have too many weak and victim-loving young men and women today that should be stronger. Reading this book, maybe, will help them put the world in perspective.

  5. Max Foster

    he Red Badge of Courage is the story of Henry Fleming, a teenager who enlists with the Union Army in the hopes of fulfilling his dreams of glory. Oops, I guess that didn’t work out so well for Henry. He finds himself running away and then full of shame for doing so. That helps drive him back to the front lines to fight again. I found this theme common in folklore when the least expected event can push and pull people in opposite directions. This is one of those stories that Dr. J. Peterson calls a “meta story”, one that is above and most attractive of all other stories.

    1. Tom Bushmaster

      Interesting story. I have to agree with you again Max for a great analysis.
      Henry Fleming converts his fear of the enemy into anger and becomes a leader, fighting boldly at the side of his lieutenant. Henry becomes such a confident, assertive, aggressive soldier that, ironically, he becomes a fighting machine himself.

    2. Jerry C. Jones

      Here is a theme that is worth taking to heart. Henry’s transformation from a fearful, lost, doubting youth, to a courageous, confident, duty-bound soldier is the essence of the novel. It is the story of the growth of a young man from innocence to maturity.

      1. Dead Pool Guy

        Good point, Jerry. I think that growing up and doing so quickly and honorably is a major theme of the book. Perhaps that is why Gen. Satterfield put maturation as the first theme on his list.

    1. KenFBrown

      Gil, I agree. One takeaway is that Story Flow in the Civil War, home for Henry is his regiment. That is what draws him back after deserting.

  6. Harry Donner

    I just ordered the Kindle edition for my iPad. I read it long ago but want to reread it so I can enjoy the writing style and the content. These themes are well spelled out for us. Thanks Gen Satterfield for bringing back memories from my college days. We analysed the book then. You are on point with your blog post about it.

    1. Nancy B

      Yes, Harry, same here. I find it also interesting that Gen. Satterfield listed “maturation” as the first theme on the list. I don’t know if that was done on purpose but I believe it’s the most important theme in the novel.

    2. Danny Burkholder

      Hi Harry, I think you should be able to find it for free on some of those sites that have classics. Try that before spending a dollar from Amazon. Just thinking a little. ?

  7. Willie Shrumburger

    I read this book when I was in Junior High School. It made a big impression upon me, in particular about ‘how’ battles were fought and the terror involved. I recommend it today, especially for those in the Millennial generation that want everything given to them.

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