The Red Badge of Courage

"War is hell, but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love," Tim O'Brien writes in his collection of fictionalized stories about his Vietnam War experience.1 Although Stephen Crane never served in the military, he grew up in its aftermath. Crane combined research, anecdotes told to him by veterans, his brilliant imagination, and theories of naturalism to craft The Red Badge of Courage (1895). He uses the setting of the Civil War and his characters to explore themes surrounding war, masculinity, and transformation.

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    The Red Badge of Courage, Photo of young Union soldier representing Henry Fleming, StudySmarterPhotograph of a young Union soldier representing the protagonist Henry Fleming. Wikimedia Commons.

    The Red Badge of Courage Summary

    The Red Badge of Courage opens with a scene of a Union camp as the sun rises. As the soldiers wake up and start going about their day, one overhears a rumor that their regiment will finally be joining the fight after weeks of waiting around. After hearing the news, the camp bursts into exciting activity. But, a soldier the narrator calls "the youth" slips away to be by himself.

    The youth is Henry Fleming, a young soldier who defied his mother's wishes and enlisted in the Union Army to become a hero. Up to this point, he's been imagining the vanquished enemies he'd leave in his path, but the news of the impending battle brings doubts to his mind that he'll be able to perform under pressure.

    The Red Badge of Courage is an example of a bildungsroman. A bildungsroman is a fancy name for a coming-of-age story.

    Henry stands his ground in the initial skirmish, but when a bigger battle appears, like many other soldiers, Henry flees. Once he reaches safety, he begins to justify his decision by reasoning that no one could survive that onslaught and his superior instincts saved him to fight another day. However, he is also ashamed that he ran and begins to envy the injured and dead soldiers he comes across for their bravery.

    As he begins walking back to his regiment, he finds the soldier who had brought the news to camp at the beginning—Jim Conklin. Jim is mortally wounded and walking in a daze, and Henry decides to watch over him and another unnamed injured soldier who soon joins them. Henry and the wounded soldier guide Jim to a field where he dies. When Henry notices that the injured soldier is also close to death, he runs away from him and leaves him to die alone. Henry is later deeply ashamed of his cowardly act.

    Henry panics and grabs onto a soldier's arm, who responds by cracking him in the head with the butt of his rifle. Henry walks in semi-conscious circles until another unidentified soldier appears. Henry lies and tells the unnamed soldier he was separated from his regiment while fighting and has been shot. The unidentified soldier leads the youth back to his unit.

    The youth approaches his regiment with the lie he told the unnamed soldier. A companion, Wilson, patches him up, and he notices that Wilson's personality has changed from bravado to humility. In the morning, Wilson tells Henry that many others came back to camp in the middle of the night with similar stories of getting lost in the battle's confusion.

    Henry and Wilson stick together, and the youth earns the regiment's respect in the next battle. When their company is chosen to be at the forefront of a battle expected to result in their deaths, Henry and Wilson fight bravely. When they see their regiment's flag-bearer go down, they rush to ensure the flag stays aloft, and the youth appoints himself its guardian.

    Commanding officers notice Henry's bravery, which boosts the youth's confidence. As the battle ends and dusk approaches, Henry mulls over his experiences and concludes since he has finally faced death and continued to fight, his previous actions don't define him. At last, the youth is a man.

    The Red Badge of Courage, Selection of the flags that represented the United States in the Civil War, StudySmarterSelection of some of the flags that represented the United States in the Civil War. Wikimedia Commons.

    The Red Badge of Courage Characters

    Crane focuses most of the narrative of The Red Badge of Courage on Henry, but other characters interact with him in ways that help move the story forward.

    Henry Fleming

    Henry Fleming, or "the youth," is the story's main character. He joins the Union Army because, like many other boys, he has grown up on heroic battlefield stories and wants to become a hero himself. Throughout the novel, Henry fears being judged as a coward by his peers.

    Jim Conklin

    Conklin is also referred to as the "tall soldier." Conklin is more experienced and self-aware than Henry. Henry asks him in chapter one if he would ever run from a battle, to which Jim replies that he would probably run if a lot of others were, but would stay put if his fellow soldiers stood their ground. Later when he dies, Conklin becomes Henry's first intimate experience with death.

    The Tattered Soldier

    The tattered soldier walks with Henry and Conklin as Conklin approaches death. The tattered soldier is also injured. He talks a lot and begs Henry to keep him company after Conklin's death, which Henry finds annoying. As the tattered soldier's injury begins to overcome him, Henry abandons him. Henry later decides this was another act of cowardice and worries his fellow soldiers will somehow find out what he did.


    Wilson is also known as the "loud soldier" because, at the beginning of the text, he is an aggressive braggart. In their first battle together, Wilson gets scared and gives Henry a packet of letters to send to his family if he dies. Later, when they meet up again, Wilson has matured in the battle Henry avoided. Henry senses this and feels threatened by him, deciding to hold onto Wilson's initial reaction as fodder if he has to divert Wilson from finding out about what he has done while they were separated. Eventually, Henry and Wilson support each other and perform heroic acts together.

    Although the characters refer to each other by name, the narrator often refers to them using their generic nicknames. This anonymity allows the reader to compare the experiences within The Red Badge of Courage to all war experiences.

    The Red Badge of Courage Themes

    Crane teases the conventional war novel themes he explores in The Red Badge of Courage by questioning their validity.


    Unlike war novels written previously, the theme of courage is not black and white. The Red Badge of Courage explores the nuances of how courage looks in battle. For example, society typically calls the soldier who dies, rather than retreats, a hero. Still, the reader realizes this is sometimes absurd when Henry begins to envy the horribly injured and gruesomely killed soldiers he encounters on his way back to his regiment.

    He lives to have the honor of carrying the flag for the unit, which implies that sometimes self-preservation is a courageous act when it allows the soldier to fight at a later date.

    In chapter seven, when Henry hears that his unit held the line in the battle he ran from, he justifies his actions to himself by telling himself that as a cog of the army, "it was the duty of every little piece to rescue itself if possible . . . so the officers could fit the little pieces together again and make a battle front." Wilson comments in chapter thirteen that he thought over half the regiment had died in the battle Henry ran from and was surprised when the majority came back during the night with stories similar to Henry's.

    In chapter eighteen, all of these men who found their way back after running to save themselves later came together to prove their worth as soldiers in a battle that was expected to kill the majority of them.

    Wartime Violence

    The color red is present throughout The Red Badge of Courage as a symbol of the violence surrounding the men on the battlefield. Nature reflects the violence of man with its red leaves and sky. Crane presents an unvarnished look at war by describing the horror and the gore. In chapter seven, Henry stumbles across a dead soldier in a group of trees that have grown to resemble a church. The juxtaposition of Henry's "soft" movements, the "gentle brown carpet" of pine needles, and the "religious half light" with the "appalling" corpse (chapter seven) highlights war as an unnatural act. By contrasting religious and natural imagery with the jarring appearance of a dead soldier, Crane makes the reader question the validity of war.

    Duty and Reputation

    The Red Badge of Courage explores the relationship between duty and reputation. Henry disobeys his mother and joins the war effort because he feels it is his duty to do so. As an inexperienced soldier, Henry spends a lot of time contemplating his duty as a soldier to fight and whether he will be up to the challenge. When he runs from the second battle to save himself, he wrestles with the question of whether his duty to protect himself overrides his duty to fight.

    The question of how a reputation is earned is raised in chapter seventeen when Henry loses all sense of his surroundings and continues fighting mindlessly after the action stopped. Instead of calling Henry's judgment into question, the lieutenant exclaims, "if I had ten thousand wild cats like you I could tear th' stomach outa this war in less'n a week . . . [then puffs] out his chest." Henry ponders this and realizes "he was now what he called a hero. And he had not been aware of the process. He had slept and, awakening, found himself a knight."

    How does Henry's decision to commit an immoral act by lying about his injury to protect his reputation affect the reader's opinion of him?

    Examples of Naturalism in The Red Badge of Courage

    Naturalism was a late-nineteenth century movement that incorporated elements of realism. The characters are ordinary people placed in true-to-life situations. However, Naturalism is written to reflect the influence of evolutionary theory. Authors write their characters living their lives in a naturalistic text as products of their environment to provide social commentary.

    Nature Is Indifferent to the Suffering of Man

    The narrator in The Red Badge of Courage often describes scenes of nature that are unaffected by the bloody battles. After Henry survives his first battle, he looks around. He is surprised to see that the sun is still shining and the sky is still blue because "Nature [went] tranquilly on with her golden process" (chapter six), while the soldiers were busy killing each other.

    Transformation From Youth to Man

    Henry begins his journey as an inexperienced young man blinded by idealized images of heroism and war. As a naturalistic text, The Red Badge of Courage aims to show that its characters are molded by their environment. Although he tries to run from the brutal reality of war, it is inescapable because Henry cannot bring himself to disregard social norms. Ultimately the war shapes him into a man who can accept himself as the flawed human he is.

    Violence Is a Fundamental Part of Masculinity

    Although it has been argued that The Red Badge of Courage is an anti-war novel, the young male soldiers (who survive) are all positively influenced by their war experience. For example, in chapter fourteen in an exchange between Henry and Wilson, Wilson asks Henry if he thinks they'll win the next battle. Henry teases Wilson, saying that Wilson would have said he's beat the whole bunch himself a couple of days before. Wilson looks embarrassed and tells Henry, "I believe I was a pretty fair fool in those days." The Red Badge of Courage teaches readers that war is an environment that humbles men by making them face their mortality.

    Take note of the contradictions in The Red Badge of Courage. The portrait Crane paints of the aftermath of the battles and how he portrays the dead soldier in the woods provides negative social commentary about war. However, Crane also uses violence as a catalyst for Wilson and Henry's positive transformations. Similarly, for the most part, nature turns a blind eye to the armies' actions, but occasionally the red that symbolizes the war splashes over into the natural scenery. These contradictions are a result of Crane's desire to offer a realistic glimpse into war. Crane's research and conversations with people who experienced the Civil War would surely have left him with a complicated view of the devastation and life-changing experience that it was.

    The Red Badge of Courage Setting

    The Red Badge of Courage takes place amid the Civil War (1861-1865). If you combine the number of casualties in all the other wars the United States has been involved in, that number roughly equals the number of soldiers who died in the Civil War alone. As a result of all the death people had to come to terms with, the Civil War strongly influenced beliefs and practices surrounding death and mourning.

    Like everything else, Victorians romanticized death. They believed whole-heartedly in the concept of a "good death," meaning that one was supposed to accept their death and die quietly at home, surrounded by their loved ones who were waiting to hear any departing pearls of wisdom.2 People had to adjust their beliefs to include soldiers' deaths in the definition because so many people were dying on the battlefield.

    Throughout The Red Badge of Courage, there are references to "good death." Jim Conklin's death is one example. As his death approaches, Jim seems to be looking for a proper space to die, which he finds in a field. Once there, Jim "[waits] with patience for something that he had come to meet" (chapter nine). Henry and the tattered soldier bear witness that he has accepted his fate. They see "profound dignity in the firm lines" (chapter nine) of Jim's face.

    The Red Badge of Courage, A Civil War battlefield, StudySmarterThis Civil War battlefield is a similar landscape to what Henry experienced. Pixabay.

    The Red Badge of Courage - Key takeaways

    • The Red Badge of Courage was written by Stephen Crane and published in 1895.
    • The Red Badge of Courage is a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, about a young Union soldier in the Civil War who must face his fears of death to become a man.
    • The themes of The Red Badge of Courage include courage, wartime violence, and duty and reputation.
    • The Red Badge of Courage is an example of Naturalism because nature is indifferent to what happens within the world of men, and war is a force that shapes men's characters through violence.
    • Crane references cultural norms surrounding death throughout The Red Badge of Courage.


    1. O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. 2009
    2. National Museum of Civil War Medicine. "Good Death and Loss in the Nineteenth Century." 2017
    Frequently Asked Questions about The Red Badge of Courage

    Who wrote The Red Badge of Courage?

    Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage; it was published in 1895.

    What does The Red Badge of Courage teach?

    The Red Badge of Courage teaches that war humbles men by making them face their mortality.

    When does The Red Badge of Courage take place?

    The Red Badge of Courage takes place during the American Civil War.

    How many chapters are in The Red Badge of Courage?

    There are twenty-four chapters in The Red Badge of Courage.

    Does Henry die in The Red Badge of Courage?

    Henry does not die in The Red Badge of Courage

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