The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War

       Stephen Crane / History & Fiction
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The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War
Produced by Arthur Smith. HTML version by Al Haines.



The Red Badge of Courage

Stephen Crane (1871-1900)

An Episode of the American Civil War

Chapter 1

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogsrevealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscapechanged from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremblewith eagerness at the noise of rumors. It cast its eyes upon theroads, which were growing from long troughs of liquid mud to properthoroughfares. A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks,purled at the army's feet; and at night, when the stream had become ofa sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red, eyelike gleamof hostile camp-fires set in the low brows of distant hills.

Once a certain tall soldier developed virtues and went resolutely towash a shirt. He came flying back from a brook waving his garmentbannerlike. He was swelled with a tale he had heard from a reliablefriend, who had heard it from a truthful cavalryman, who had heard itfrom his trustworthy brother, one of the orderlies at divisionheadquarters. He adopted the important air of a herald in red and gold.

”We're goin' t' move t'morrah--sure,” he said pompously to a group inthe company street. ”We're goin' 'way up the river, cut across, an'come around in behint 'em.”

To his attentive audience he drew a loud and elaborate plan of a verybrilliant campaign. When he had finished, the blue-clothed menscattered into small arguing groups between the rows of squat brownhuts. A negro teamster who had been dancing upon a cracker box withthe hilarious encouragement of twoscore soldiers was deserted. He satmournfully down. Smoke drifted lazily from a multitude of quaintchimneys.

”It's a lie! that's all it is--a thunderin' lie!” said another privateloudly. His smooth face was flushed, and his hands were thrust sulkilyinto his trouser's pockets. He took the matter as an affront to him.”I don't believe the derned old army's ever going to move. We're set.I've got ready to move eight times in the last two weeks, and we ain'tmoved yet.”

The tall soldier felt called upon to defend the truth of a rumor hehimself had introduced. He and the loud one came near to fighting overit.

A corporal began to swear before the assemblage. He had just put acostly board floor in his house, he said. During the early spring hehad refrained from adding extensively to the comfort of his environmentbecause he had felt that the army might start on the march at anymoment. Of late, however, he had been impressed that they were in asort of eternal camp.

Many of the men engaged in a spirited debate. One outlined in apeculiarly lucid manner all the plans of the commanding general. Hewas opposed by men who advocated that there were other plans ofcampaign. They clamored at each other, numbers making futile bids forthe popular attention. Meanwhile, the soldier who had fetched therumor bustled about with much importance. He was continually assailedby questions.

”What's up, Jim?”

”Th'army's goin' t' move.”

”Ah, what yeh talkin' about? How yeh know it is?”

”Well, yeh kin b'lieve me er not, jest as yeh like. I don't care ahang.”

There was much food for thought in the manner in which he replied. Hecame near to convincing them by disdaining to produce proofs. Theygrew much excited over it.

There was a youthful private who listened with eager ears to the wordsof the tall soldier and to the varied comments of his comrades. Afterreceiving a fill of discussions concerning marches and attacks, he wentto his hut and crawled through an intricate hole that served it as adoor. He wished to be alone with some new thoughts that had latelycome to him.

He lay down on a wide bunk that stretched across the end of the room.In the other end, cracker boxes were made to serve as furniture. Theywere grouped about the fireplace. A picture from an illustrated weeklywas upon the log walls, and three rifles were paralleled on pegs.Equipments hung on handy projections, and some tin dishes lay upon asmall pile of firewood. A folded tent was serving as a roof. Thesunlight, without, beating upon it, made it glow a light yellow shade.A small window shot an oblique square of whiter light upon thecluttered floor. The smoke from the fire at times neglected the claychimney and wreathed into the room, and this flimsy chimney of clay andsticks made endless threats to set ablaze the whole establishment.

The youth was in a little trance of astonishment. So they were at lastgoing to fight. On the morrow, perhaps, there would be a battle, andhe would be in it. For a time he was obliged to labor to make himselfbelieve. He could not accept with assurance an omen that he was aboutto mingle in one of those great affairs of the earth.

He had, of course, dreamed of battles all his life--of vague and bloodyconflicts that had thrilled him with their sweep and fire. In visionshe had seen himself in many struggles. He had imagined peoples securein the shadow of his eagle-eyed prowess. But awake he had regardedbattles as crimson blotches on the pages of the past. He had put themas things of the bygone with his thought-images of heavy crowns andhigh castles. There was a portion of the world's history which he hadregarded as the time of wars, but it, he thought, had been long goneover the horizon and had disappeared forever.

From his home his youthful eyes had looked upon the war in his owncountry with distrust. It must be some sort of a play affair. He hadlong despaired of witnessing a Greeklike struggle. Such would be nomore, he had said. Men were better, or more timid. Secular andreligious education had effaced the throat-grappling instinct, or elsefirm finance held in check the passions.

He had burned several times to enlist. Tales of great movements shookthe land. They might not be distinctly Homeric, but there seemed to bemuch glory in them. He had read of marches, sieges, conflicts, and hehad longed to see it all. His busy mind had drawn for him largepictures extravagant in color, lurid with breathless deeds.

But his mother had discouraged him. She had affected to look with somecontempt upon the quality of his war ardor and patriotism. She couldcalmly seat herself and with no apparent difficulty give him manyhundreds of reasons why he was of vastly more importance on the farmthan on the field of battle. She had had certain ways of expressionthat told him that her statements on the subject came from a deepconviction. Moreover, on her side, was his belief that her ethicalmotive in the argument was impregnable.

At last, however, he had made firm rebellion against this yellow lightthrown upon the color of his ambitions. The newspapers, the gossip ofthe village, his own picturings, had aroused him to an uncheckabledegree. They were in truth fighting finely down there. Almost everyday the newspaper printed accounts of a decisive victory.

One night, as he lay in bed, the winds had carried to him theclangoring of the church bell as some enthusiast jerked the ropefrantically to tell the twisted news of a great battle. This voice ofthe people rejoicing in the night had made him shiver in a prolongedecstasy of excitement. Later, he had gone down to his mother's roomand had spoken thus: ”Ma, I'm going to enlist.”

”Henry, don't you be a fool,” his mother had replied. She had thencovered her face with the quilt. There was an end to the matter forthat night.

Nevertheless, the next morning he had gone to a town that was near hismother's farm and had enlisted in a company that was forming there.When he had returned home his mother was milking the brindle cow. Fourothers stood waiting. ”Ma, I've enlisted,” he had said to herdiffidently. There was a short silence. ”The Lord's will be done,Henry,” she had finally replied, and had then continued to milk thebrindle cow.

When he had stood in the doorway with his soldier's clothes on hisback, and with the light of excitement and expectancy in his eyesalmost defeating the glow of regret for the home bonds, he had seen twotears leaving their trails on his mother's scarred cheeks.

Still, she had disappointed him by saying nothing whatever aboutreturning with his shield or on it. He had privately primed himselffor a beautiful scene. He had prepared certain sentences which hethought could be used with touching effect. But her words destroyedhis plans. She had doggedly peeled potatoes and addressed him asfollows: ”You watch out, Henry, an' take good care of yerself in thishere fighting business--you watch, an' take good care of yerself.Don't go a-thinkin' you can lick the hull rebel army at the start,because yeh can't. Yer jest one little feller amongst a hull lot ofothers, and yeh've got to keep quiet an' do what they tell yeh. I knowhow you are, Henry.

”I've knet yeh eight pair of socks, Henry, and I've put in all yer bestshirts, because I want my boy to be jest as warm and comf'able asanybody in the army. Whenever they get holes in 'em, I want yeh tosend 'em right-away back to me, so's I kin dern 'em.

”An' allus be careful an' choose yer comp'ny. There's lots of bad menin the army, Henry. The army makes 'em wild, and they like nothingbetter than the job of leading off a young feller like you, as ain'tnever been away from home much and has allus had a mother, an'a-learning 'em to drink and swear. Keep clear of them folks, Henry. Idon't want yeh to ever do anything, Henry, that yeh would be 'shamed tolet me know about. Jest think as if I was a-watchin' yeh. If yeh keepthat in yer mind allus, I guess yeh'll come out about right.

”Yeh must allus remember yer father, too, child, an' remember he neverdrunk a drop of licker in his life, and seldom swore a cross oath.

”I don't know what else to tell yeh, Henry, excepting that yeh mustnever do no shirking, child, on my account. If so be a time comes whenyeh have to be kilt or do a mean thing, why, Henry, don't think ofanything 'cept what's right, because there's many a woman has to bearup 'ginst sech things these times, and the Lord 'll take keer of us all.

”Don't forgit about the socks and the shirts, child; and I've put a cupof blackberry jam with yer bundle, because I know yeh like it above allthings. Good-by, Henry. Watch out, and be a good boy.”

He had, of course, been impatient under the ordeal of this speech. Ithad not been quite what he expected, and he had borne it with an air ofirritation. He departed feeling vague relief.

Still, when he had looked back from the gate, he had seen his motherkneeling among the potato parings. Her brown face, upraised, wasstained with tears, and her spare form was quivering. He bowed hishead and went on, feeling suddenly ashamed of his purposes.

From his home he had gone to the seminary to bid adieu to manyschoolmates. They had thronged about him with wonder and admiration.He had felt the gulf now between them and had swelled with calm pride.He and some of his fellows who had donned blue were quite overwhelmedwith privileges for all of one afternoon, and it had been a verydelicious thing. They had strutted.

A certain light-haired girl had made vivacious fun at his martialspirit, but there was another and darker girl whom he had gazed atsteadfastly, and he thought she grew demure and sad at sight of hisblue and brass. As he had walked down the path between the rows ofoaks, he had turned his head and detected her at a window watching hisdeparture. As he perceived her, she had immediately begun to stare upthrough the high tree branches at the sky. He had seen a good deal offlurry and haste in her movement as she changed her attitude. He oftenthought of it.

On the way to Washington his spirit had soared. The regiment was fedand caressed at station after station until the youth had believed thathe must be a hero. There was a lavish expenditure of bread and coldmeats, coffee, and pickles and cheese. As he basked in the smiles ofthe girls and was patted and complimented by the old men, he had feltgrowing within him the strength to do mighty deeds of arms.

After complicated journeyings with many pauses, there had come monthsof monotonous life in a camp. He had had the belief that real war wasa series of death struggles with small time in between for sleep andmeals; but since his regiment had come to the field the army had donelittle but sit still and try to keep warm.

He was brought then gradually back to his old ideas. Greeklikestruggles would be no more. Men were better, or more timid. Secularand religious education had effaced the throat-grappling instinct, orelse firm finance held in check the passions.

He had grown to regard himself merely as a part of a vast bluedemonstration. His province was to look out, as far as he could, forhis personal comfort. For recreation he could twiddle his thumbs andspeculate on the thoughts which must agitate the minds of the generals.Also, he was drilled and drilled and reviewed, and drilled and drilledand reviewed.

The only foes he had seen were some pickets along the river bank. Theywere a sun-tanned, philosophical lot, who sometimes shot reflectivelyat the blue pickets. When reproached for this afterward, they usuallyexpressed sorrow, and swore by their gods that the guns had explodedwithout their permission. The youth, on guard duty one night,conversed across the stream with one of them. He was a slightly raggedman, who spat skillfully between his shoes and possessed a great fundof bland and infantile assurance. The youth liked him personally.

”Yank,” the other had informed him, ”yer a right dum good feller.” Thissentiment, floating to him upon the still air, had made him temporarilyregret war.

Various veterans had told him tales. Some talked of gray, bewhiskeredhordes who were advancing with relentless curses and chewing tobaccowith unspeakable valor; tremendous bodies of fierce soldiery who weresweeping along like the Huns. Others spoke of tattered and eternallyhungry men who fired despondent powders. ”They'll charge throughhell's fire an' brimstone t' git a holt on a haversack, an' sechstomachs ain't a'lastin' long,” he was told. From the stories, theyouth imagined the red, live bones sticking out through slits in thefaded uniforms.

Still, he could not put a whole faith in veteran's tales, for recruitswere their prey. They talked much of smoke, fire, and blood, but hecould not tell how much might be lies. They persistently yelled ”Freshfish!” at him, and were in no wise to be trusted.

However, he perceived now that it did not greatly matter what kind ofsoldiers he was going to fight, so long as they fought, which fact noone disputed. There was a more serious problem. He lay in his bunkpondering upon it. He tried to mathematically prove to himself that hewould not run from a battle.

Previously he had never felt obliged to wrestle too seriously with thisquestion. In his life he had taken certain things for granted, neverchallenging his belief in ultimate success, and bothering little aboutmeans and roads. But here he was confronted with a thing of moment.It had suddenly appeared to him that perhaps in a battle he might run.He was forced to admit that as far as war was concerned he knew nothingof himself.

A sufficient time before he would have allowed the problem to kick itsheels at the outer portals of his mind, but now he felt compelled togive serious attention to it.

A little panic-fear grew in his mind. As his imagination went forwardto a fight, he saw hideous possibilities. He contemplated the lurkingmenaces of the future, and failed in an effort to see himself standingstoutly in the midst of them. He recalled his visions of broken-bladedglory, but in the shadow of the impending tumult he suspected them tobe impossible pictures.

He sprang from the bunk and began to pace nervously to and fro. ”GoodLord, what's th' matter with me?” he said aloud.

He felt that in this crisis his laws of life were useless. Whatever hehad learned of himself was here of no avail. He was an unknownquantity. He saw that he would again be obliged to experiment as hehad in early youth. He must accumulate information of himself, andmeanwhile he resolved to remain close upon his guard lest thosequalities of which he knew nothing should everlastingly disgrace him.”Good Lord!” he repeated in dismay.

After a time the tall soldier slid dexterously through the hole. Theloud private followed. They were wrangling.

”That's all right,” said the tall soldier as he entered. He waved hishand expressively. ”You can believe me or not, jest as you like. Allyou got to do is sit down and wait as quiet as you can. Then prettysoon you'll find out I was right.”

His comrade grunted stubbornly. For a moment he seemed to be searchingfor a formidable reply. Finally he said: ”Well, you don't knoweverything in the world, do you?”

”Didn't say I knew everything in the world,” retorted the othersharply. He began to stow various articles snugly into his knapsack.

The youth, pausing in his nervous walk, looked down at the busy figure.”Going to be a battle, sure, is there, Jim?” he asked.

”Of course there is,” replied the tall soldier. ”Of course there is.You jest wait 'til to-morrow, and you'll see one of the biggest battlesever was. You jest wait.”

”Thunder!” said the youth.

”Oh, you'll see fighting this time, my boy, what'll be regularout-and-out fighting,” added the tall soldier, with the air of a manwho is about to exhibit a battle for the benefit of his friends.

”Huh!” said the loud one from a corner.

”Well,” remarked the youth, ”like as not this story'll turn out jestlike them others did.”

”Not much it won't,” replied the tall soldier, exasperated. ”Not muchit won't. Didn't the cavalry all start this morning?” He glared abouthim. No one denied his statement. ”The cavalry started this morning,”he continued. ”They say there ain't hardly any cavalry left in camp.They're going to Richmond, or some place, while we fight all theJohnnies. It's some dodge like that. The regiment's got orders, too.A feller what seen 'em go to headquarters told me a little while ago.And they're raising blazes all over camp--anybody can see that.”

”Shucks!” said the loud one.

The youth remained silent for a time. At last he spoke to the tallsoldier. ”Jim!”

”What?”

”How do you think the reg'ment 'll do?”

”Oh, they'll fight all right, I guess, after they once get into it,”said the other with cold judgment. He made a fine use of the thirdperson. ”There's been heaps of fun poked at 'em because they're new,of course, and all that; but they'll fight all right, I guess.”

”Think any of the boys 'll run?” persisted the youth.

”Oh, there may be a few of 'em run, but there's them kind in everyregiment, 'specially when they first goes under fire,” said the otherin a tolerant way. ”Of course it might happen that the hullkit-and-boodle might start and run, if some big fighting camefirst-off, and then again they might stay and fight like fun. But youcan't bet on nothing. Of course they ain't never been under fire yet,and it ain't likely they'll lick the hull rebel army all-to-oncet thefirst time; but I think they'll fight better than some, if worse thanothers. That's the way I figger. They call the reg'ment 'Fresh fish'and everything; but the boys come of good stock, and most of 'em 'llfight like sin after they oncet git shootin',” he added, with a mightyemphasis on the last four words.

”Oh, you think you know--” began the loud soldier with scorn.

The other turned savagely upon him. They had a rapid altercation, inwhich they fastened upon each other various strange epithets.

The youth at last interrupted them. ”Did you ever think you might runyourself, Jim?” he asked. On concluding the sentence he laughed as ifhe had meant to aim a joke. The loud soldier also giggled.

The tall private waved his hand. ”Well,” said he profoundly, ”I'vethought it might get too hot for Jim Conklin in some of themscrimmages, and if a whole lot of boys started and run, why, I s'poseI'd start and run. And if I once started to run, I'd run like thedevil, and no mistake. But if everybody was a-standing and a-fighting,why, I'd stand and fight. Be jiminey, I would. I'll bet on it.”

”Huh!” said the loud one.

The youth of this tale felt gratitude for these words of his comrade.He had feared that all of the untried men possessed great and correctconfidence. He now was in a measure reassured.


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