Civil War historical fiction: 'The Red Badge of Courage'


Having been born six years after the end of the Civil War, aspiring young author Stephen Crane learned firsthand about “combat” on the football field, rather the battlefields of the bloody conflict between North and South. Yet, reading the anthology “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War” lit a spark that led Crane to produce a critically-acclaimed depiction of the psychology of men in battle.

The 24-year-old was living at the Art Students’ League in New York at the time, and was struggling to make ends meet by freelancing for newspapers such as the Herald and Tribune. Crane’s first novel, a grim story based on the skid row areas of the Bowery, titled “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets,” failed to attract much attention, even though it broke new literary ground.

Crane’s investigation of the Civil War led him to craft a story about a Union soldier confronting the trauma of going into battle for the first time. In the story, Henry Fleming failed to heed his mother’s pleading not to enlist in the Union army but remain on the farm, helping her with the chores.

Henry was drawn toward the great adventure dominating the local newspapers and conversations of the people in his small town. He soon found himself at the battlefront, and took stock of his potential to stand resolute in the face of enemy gunfire.

The youthful soldier pondered whether being killed outright was preferable to the nerve-wracking test of demonstrating valor in the face of the enemy. For Henry, matters became further complicated when a comrade informed him of a premonition of his own death — a not-uncommon battlefield phenomenon.

Crane creates a vivid image of the chaos engulfing the combatants tearing at each other with frantic sound and fury. Henry’s regiment was successful in repulsing the enemy’s initial attack.

The test materialized during a second enemy charge across the battlefield. With shells exploding overhead and bullets whizzing through the trees rising to a deafening crescendo, Henry, along with the surviving members of his unit, “ran like a rabbit.”

When he finally reached a location of relative safety among wounded soldiers, far behind the lines, a feeling of shame and guilt caused Henry to yearn that he had sustained an absolving wound of his own that would be his “red badge of courage.”

Compounding Henry’s remorse, his friend, Jim, who had had a premonition, appeared from among the crowd with a serious wound that was bleeding profusely. When Jim collapsed and died before his eyes, Henry fell into a rage and shook his fist in anger.

Author Crane has now set the stage for an intense transformation on the part of his protagonist. For those who wish to read this work of fiction and learn the outcome for themselves, it is sufficient to say that the drama endures until a satisfactory conclusion is attained.

First published in 1895, “The Red Badge of Courage” has never been out of print. Civil War veterans praised the story for its realistic impression of actual battlefield experiences and emotions.

Crane wrote a sequel to “Red Badge,” a short story titled “The Veteran” that features Henry Fleming in the post-war years. In a scene from this story, Henry admits to the town grocer, who asked if he was ever scared during the war, “Well, I guess I was. Pretty well scared sometimes. Why, in my first battle I thought the sky was falling down. I thought the world was coming to an end. You bet I was scared.”

The adventurous author Stephen Crane experienced considerable excitement during his own brief life. He married Cora Taylor, and both served as correspondents who covered a war in Greece before settling in Sussex, England.

These adventurous activities took a toll on Crane’s delicate health, and he passed away in Germany from tuberculosis at age 28. His legacy is a novel of 145 pages that remains to this day the epitome of a soldier’s experience in wartime.

Next, we will discuss “Cold Mountain,” a story about a Confederate soldier named Inman who seeks refuge from the ravages of war in his native mountains of North Carolina. It is considered Charles Frazier’s finest novel and ranks high on the list of fictional accounts about the Civil War.

Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War,” of which signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. His latest book with co-author Richard M. Schaus, “‘Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken’: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863,” is due out in May 2019. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.

By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point