Today in History: Red Badge of Courage is published

October 3rd, 2012

In October of 1895, Stephen Crane’s novel about the Civil War, The Red Badge of Courage, was published. In the book, Crane tells the story of a young private, Henry Fleming, who experiences battle for the first time as a soldier in the (fictional) 304th New York Regiment. Throughout the story, Henry–or “the youth,” as Crane refers to him–grapples with what it means to be brave under fire and whether he can overcome his fears and act on his courage. After deserting his regiment during his first engagement, the youth returns and joins his fellow soldiers for an assault against the Confederates, serving as their color-bearer. After the battle, Henry takes time to ponder his transformation during the battle, at last concluding that “he was a man.” Crane finishes the book:

[The youth] felt a quiet manhood, nonassertive but of sturdy and strong blood. He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point. He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.

So it came to pass that as he trudged from the place of blood and wrath his soul changed. He came from hot plowshares to prospects of clover tranquilly, and it was as if hot plowshares were not. Scars faded as flowers.

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.

As you read the book (available in full online), consider the youth’s struggle with his courage, the conclusion of which is most easily seen during the final assault of the battle. Crane writes:

The youth kept the bright colors to the front. He was waving his free arm in furious circles, the while shrieking mad calls and appeals, urging on those that did not need to be urged, for it seemed that the mob of blue men hurling themselves on the dangerous group of rifles were again grown suddenly wild with an enthusiasm of unselfishness. From the many firings starting toward them, it looked as if they would merely succeed in making a great sprinkling of corpses on the grass between their former position and the fence. But they were in a state of frenzy, perhaps because of forgotten vanities, and it made an exhibition of sublime recklessness. There was no obvious questioning, nor figurings, nor diagrams. There was, apparently, no considered loopholes. It appeared that the swift wings of their desires would have shattered against the iron gates of the impossible.

He himself felt the daring spirit of a savage, religion-mad. He was capable of profound sacrifices, a tremendous death. He had no time for dissections, but he knew that he thought of the bullets only as things that could prevent him from reaching the place of his endeavor. There were subtle flashings of joy within him that thus should be his mind.

Our friends at EDSITEment have a great lesson plan on using Crane’s book to explore the virtue of courage; check it out here.

Related: Read Willa Cather’s short story “The Namesake,” about an artist discovering what it means to be an American by learning about his namesake, a color-bearer who was killed in the Civil War.

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