[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:
- Duty and Honor
- 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.
- The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane, published in 1895 but also serialized in newspapers in 1894. It remains in print today.