Stephen Crane’s 1893 novel The Red Badge of Courage is, without a doubt, one of the most famous Civil War fiction pieces ever written and a staple of required, academic reading. The tale of a soldier who longs to flee from duty but later becomes a hero breaks into the hearts of even the most peace-seeking reader, not because the protagonist Henry Fleming blindly follows some creed he has been brainwashed with, but because he overcomes his personal struggle with terror and behavior he considers cowardice.
Like many Civil War soldiers, Fleming joins the regiments blindly. But real fighting changes Fleming’s former, vague perceptions of war:
“He had, of course, dreamed of battles all
his life–of vague and bloody conflicts that had
thrilled him with their sweep and fire. In visions
he had seen himself in many struggles. He had
imagined peoples secure in the shadow of his
eagle-eyed prowess. But awake he had regarded
battles as crimson blotches on the pages of the
past. He had put them as things of the bygone
with his thought-images of heavy crowns and
high castles. There was a portion of the world’s
history which he had regarded as the time of
wars, but it, he thought, had been long gone over
the horizon and had disappeared forever.”
“The sore joints of the regiment creaked as it painfully floundered
into position to repulse.
The youth stared. Surely, he thought, this
impossible thing was not about to happen. He
waited as if he expected the enemy to suddenly
stop, apologize, and retire bowing. It was all a
Besides producing the first example of American Naturalism, Crane brings 18-year-old Henry to life by entering his mind, truly personalizing an unknown soldier who becomes atypical in the midst of violence and fear.
Naturalism is described as “a type of literature that attempts to apply scientific principles of objectivity and detachment to its study of human beings.” Crane’s novel is a study of Fleming’s behaviors and thoughts that provides the reader with better understanding of the character, of war and of humanity.
Cussing, suffering and gore shocked period readers unaccustomed to graphic, realistic descriptions in novels. For example, Fleming converses with a “tattered youth” and encounters a decomposing soldier.
Fleming flees before he can become the well-known hero of the novel:
“He yelled then with fright and swung about.
For a moment, in the great clamor, he was like a
proverbial chicken. He lost the direction of
safety. Destruction threatened him from all
Directly he began to speed toward the rear in
Crane’s novel added greatly to my journey through Poems from the Battlefield, as well as my physical journey through Manassas Battlefield Park.
One day, I challenged myself to walk eight hours in the park. Each time I rested, I read portions of the book. Each time I read the placards, I tried to imagine the men who were really on those fields. Thus I produced poetry about the people and at least two poems based on The Red Badge of Courage.
In “For the Red Badge,” I speak to Fleming and the deceased. I admit, walking through a park, that I, the narrator, have no wisdom of “deep cut/or the plains horse rut/or the ridge at Chinn”–Deep Cut and Chinn being actual sites in the park. In other words, I cannot possibly fully understand the kind of fear Fleming and his contemporaries must have experienced.
Yet, I can understand terror and the need to flee from tortuous memories.
Conversely, I want to do my duty for the sake of my family and beliefs. “I want to conform/be worthy of uniform/serve as I have sworn.” This will take an act of bravery.
In “Resuming,” I pull myself up by my fraying bootstraps, as Fleming does. And I find glory in doing so in spite of the pain: “There is no thornier victory/than brushes with ancient brambles/then the gallop back to group.”
My retreat and then rejoining is as Fleming’s, is as all survivors’.
So the two poems, which are placed back-to-back, merge past with present as they communicate the dichotomy of what must be the soldier’s experience.
These poems in particular, then, are commemorations of not only a great author, but the real people of the Civil War, and I hope they are read with that in mind.