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| Home | Reading Room The Red Badge of Courage

The Red Badge of Courage
An Episode of the American Civil War
by Stephen Crane

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WHEN another night came the columns,

changed to purple streaks, filed across two pon-

toon bridges. A glaring fire wine-tinted the

waters of the river. Its rays, shining upon the

moving masses of troops, brought forth here and

there sudden gleams of silver or gold. Upon

the other shore a dark and mysterious range of

hills was curved against the sky. The insect

voices of the night sang solemnly.

After this crossing the youth assured himself

that at any moment they might be suddenly and

fearfully assaulted from the caves of the lowering

woods. He kept his eyes watchfully upon the darkness.

But his regiment went unmolested to a camp-

ing place, and its soldiers slept the brave sleep

of wearied men. In the morning they were

routed out with early energy, and hustled along

a narrow road that led deep into the forest.

It was during this rapid march that the regiment

lost many of the marks of a new command.

The men had begun to count the miles upon

their fingers, and they grew tired. "Sore feet

an' damned short rations, that's all," said the

loud soldier. There was perspiration and grum-

blings. After a time they began to shed their

knapsacks. Some tossed them unconcernedly

down; others hid them carefully, asserting their

plans to return for them at some convenient

time. Men extricated themselves from thick

shirts. Presently few carried anything but their

necessary clothing, blankets, haversacks, canteens,

and arms and ammunition. "You can now eat

and shoot," said the tall soldier to the youth.

"That's all you want to do."

There was sudden change from the ponderous

infantry of theory to the light and speedy infantry

of practice. The regiment, relieved of a burden,

received a new impetus. But there was much

loss of valuable knapsacks, and, on the whole,

very good shirts.

But the regiment was not yet veteranlike in

appearance. Veteran regiments in the army

were likely to be very small aggregations of men.

Once, when the command had first come to the

field, some perambulating veterans, noting the

length of their column, had accosted them thus:

"Hey, fellers, what brigade is that?" And when

the men had replied that they formed a regiment

and not a brigade, the older soldiers had laughed,

and said, "O Gawd!"

Also, there was too great a similarity in the

hats. The hats of a regiment should properly

represent the history of headgear for a period of

years. And, moreover, there were no letters of

faded gold speaking from the colors. They were

new and beautiful, and the color bearer habitually

oiled the pole.

Presently the army again sat down to think.

The odor of the peaceful pines was in the men's

nostrils. The sound of monotonous axe blows

rang through the forest, and the insects, nodding

upon their perches, crooned like old women.

The youth returned to his theory of a blue demonstration.

One gray dawn, however, he was kicked in

the leg by the tall soldier, and then, before he

was entirely awake, he found himself running

down a wood road in the midst of men who were

panting from the first effects of speed. His can-

teen banged rhythmically upon his thigh, and his

haversack bobbed softly. His musket bounced

a trifle from his shoulder at each stride and made

his cap feel uncertain upon his head.

He could hear the men whisper jerky sen-

tences: "Say--what's all this--about?" "What

th' thunder--we--skedaddlin' this way fer?"

"Billie--keep off m' feet. Yeh run--like a cow."

And the loud soldier's shrill voice could be

heard: "What th' devil they in sich a hurry for?"

The youth thought the damp fog of early

morning moved from the rush of a great body

of troops. From the distance came a sudden

spatter of firing.

He was bewildered. As he ran with his com-

rades he strenuously tried to think, but all he knew

was that if he fell down those coming behind

would tread upon him. All his faculties seemed

to be needed to guide him over and past obstruc-

tions. He felt carried along by a mob.

The sun spread disclosing rays, and, one by

one, regiments burst into view like armed men

just born of the earth. The youth perceived

that the time had come. He was about to be

measured. For a moment he felt in the face of

his great trial like a babe, and the flesh over

his heart seemed very thin. He seized time to

look about him calculatingly.

But he instantly saw that it would be impossi-

ble for him to escape from the regiment. It in-

closed him. And there were iron laws of tradi-

tion and law on four sides. He was in a moving box.

As he perceived this fact it occurred to him

that he had never wished to come to the war.

He had not enlisted of his free will. He had

been dragged by the merciless government. And

now they were taking him out to be slaughtered.

The regiment slid down a bank and wallowed

across a little stream. The mournful current

moved slowly on, and from the water, shaded

black, some white bubble eyes looked at the men.

As they climbed the hill on the farther side

artillery began to boom. Here the youth forgot

many things as he felt a sudden impulse of curi-

osity. He scrambled up the bank with a speed

that could not be exceeded by a bloodthirsty man.

He expected a battle scene.

There were some little fields girted and

squeezed by a forest. Spread over the grass and

in among the tree trunks, he could see knots and

waving lines of skirmishers who were running

hither and thither and firing at the landscape.

A dark battle line lay upon a sunstruck clearing

that gleamed orange color. A flag fluttered.

Other regiments floundered up the bank. The

brigade was formed in line of battle, and after a

pause started slowly through the woods in the

rear of the receding skirmishers, who were con-

tinually melting into the scene to appear again

farther on. They were always busy as bees,

deeply absorbed in their little combats.

The youth tried to observe everything. He

did not use care to avoid trees and branches,

and his forgotten feet were constantly knocking

against stones or getting entangled in briers.

He was aware that these battalions with their

commotions were woven red and startling into

the gentle fabric of softened greens and browns.

It looked to be a wrong place for a battle field.

The skirmishers in advance fascinated him.

Their shots into thickets and at distant and

prominent trees spoke to him of tragedies--hid-

den, mysterious, solemn.

Once the line encountered the body of a dead

soldier. He lay upon his back staring at the sky.

He was dressed in an awkward suit of yellowish

brown. The youth could see that the soles of his

shoes had been worn to the thinness of writing

paper, and from a great rent in one the dead foot

projected piteously. And it was as if fate had

betrayed the soldier. In death it exposed to his

enemies that poverty which in life he had perhaps

concealed from his friends.

The ranks opened covertly to avoid the corpse.

The invulnerable dead man forced a way for him-

self. The youth looked keenly at the ashen face.

The wind raised the tawny beard. It moved as

if a hand were stroking it. He vaguely desired

to walk around and around the body and stare;

the impulse of the living to try to read in dead

eyes the answer to the Question.

During the march the ardor which the youth

had acquired when out of view of the field rapidly

faded to nothing. His curiosity was quite easily

satisfied. If an intense scene had caught him with

its wild swing as he came to the top of the bank,

he might have gone roaring on. This advance

upon Nature was too calm. He had opportunity

to reflect. He had time in which to wonder

about himself and to attempt to probe his sensations.

Absurd ideas took hold upon him. He

thought that he did not relish the landscape.

It threatened him. A coldness swept over his

back, and it is true that his trousers felt to him

that they were no fit for his legs at all.

A house standing placidly in distant fields

had to him an ominous look. The shadows of

the woods were formidable. He was certain that

in this vista there lurked fierce-eyed hosts. The

swift thought came to him that the generals did

not know what they were about. It was all a

trap. Suddenly those close forests would bristle

with rifle barrels. Ironlike brigades would ap-

pear in the rear. They were all going to be

sacrificed. The generals were stupids. The

enemy would presently swallow the whole com-

mand. He glared about him, expecting to see

the stealthy approach of his death.

He thought that he must break from the ranks

and harangue his comrades. They must not all

be killed like pigs; and he was sure it would

come to pass unless they were informed of these

dangers. The generals were idiots to send them

marching into a regular pen. There was but one

pair of eyes in the corps. He would step forth

and make a speech. Shrill and passionate words

came to his lips.

The line, broken into moving fragments by the

ground, went calmly on through fields and woods.

The youth looked at the men nearest him, and

saw, for the most part, expressions of deep inter-

est, as if they were investigating something that

had fascinated them. One or two stepped with

overvaliant airs as if they were already plunged

into war. Others walked as upon thin ice. The

greater part of the untested men appeared quiet

and absorbed. They were going to look at war,

the red animal--war, the blood-swollen god. And

they were deeply engrossed in this march.

As he looked the youth gripped his outcry at

his throat. He saw that even if the men were

tottering with fear they would laugh at his warn-

ing. They would jeer him, and, if practicable,

pelt him with missiles. Admitting that he might

be wrong, a frenzied declamation of the kind

would turn him into a worm.

He assumed, then, the demeanor of one who

knows that he is doomed alone to unwritten responsibilities.

He lagged, with tragic glances at the sky.

He was surprised presently by the young lieu-

tenant of his company, who began heartily to

beat him with a sword, calling out in a loud and

insolent voice: "Come, young man, get up into

ranks there. No skulking'll do here." He mend-

ed his pace with suitable haste. And he hated

the lieutenant, who had no appreciation of fine

minds. He was a mere brute.

After a time the brigade was halted in the

cathedral light of a forest. The busy skirmish-

ers were still popping. Through the aisles of

the wood could be seen the floating smoke from

their rifles. Sometimes it went up in little balls,

white and compact.

During this halt many men in the regiment

began erecting tiny hills in front of them. They

used stones, sticks, earth, and anything they

thought might turn a bullet. Some built com-

paratively large ones, while others seemed con-

tent with little ones.

This procedure caused a discussion among the

men. Some wished to fight like duelists, believ-

ing it to be correct to stand erect and be, from

their feet to their foreheads, a mark. They said

they scorned the devices of the cautious. But

the others scoffed in reply, and pointed to the

veterans on the flanks who were digging at the

ground like terriers. In a short time there was

quite a barricade along the regimental fronts.

Directly, however, they were ordered to with-

draw from that place.

This astounded the youth. He forgot his

stewing over the advance movement. "Well,

then, what did they march us out here for?" he

demanded of the tall soldier. The latter with

calm faith began a heavy explanation, although

he had been compelled to leave a little protection

of stones and dirt to which he had devoted much

care and skill.

When the regiment was aligned in another

position each man's regard for his safety caused

another line of small intrenchments. They ate

their noon meal behind a third one. They were

moved from this one also. They were marched

from place to place with apparent aimlessness.

The youth had been taught that a man be-

came another thing in a battle. He saw his sal-

vation in such a change. Hence this waiting

was an ordeal to him. He was in a fever of im-

patience. He considered that there was denoted

a lack of purpose on the part of the generals.

He began to complain to the tall soldier. "I

can't stand this much longer," he cried. "I

don't see what good it does to make us wear

out our legs for nothin'." He wished to return

to camp, knowing that this affair was a blue

demonstration; or else to go into a battle and

discover that he had been a fool in his doubts,

and was, in truth, a man of traditional courage.

The strain of present circumstances he felt to be


The philosophical tall soldier measured a sand-

wich of cracker and pork and swallowed it in a

nonchalant manner. "Oh, I suppose we must go

reconnoitering around the country jest to keep

'em from getting too close, or to develop 'em, or


"Huh!" said the loud soldier.

"Well," cried the youth, still fidgeting, "I'd

rather do anything 'most than go tramping 'round

the country all day doing no good to nobody and

jest tiring ourselves out."

"So would I," said the loud soldier. "It ain't

right. I tell you if anybody with any sense was

a-runnin' this army it--"

"Oh, shut up!" roared the tall private. "You

little fool. You little damn' cuss. You ain't had

that there coat and them pants on for six months,

and yet you talk as if--"

"Well, I wanta do some fighting anyway,"

interrupted the other. "I didn't come here to

walk. I could 'ave walked to home--'round an'

'round the barn, if I jest wanted to walk."

The tall one, red-faced, swallowed another

sandwich as if taking poison in despair.

But gradually, as he chewed, his face became

again quiet and contented. He could not rage

in fierce argument in the presence of such sand-

wiches. During his meals he always wore an air

of blissful contemplation of the food he had swal-

lowed. His spirit seemed then to be communing

with the viands.

He accepted new environment and circum-

stance with great coolness, eating from his haver-

sack at every opportunity. On the march he

went along with the stride of a hunter, object-

ing to neither gait nor distance. And he had

not raised his voice when he had been ordered

away from three little protective piles of earth

and stone, each of which had been an engineer-

ing feat worthy of being made sacred to the name

of his grandmother.

In the afternoon the regiment went out over

the same ground it had taken in the morn-

ing. The landscape then ceased to threaten the

youth. He had been close to it and become

familiar with it.

When, however, they began to pass into a

new region, his old fears of stupidity and in-

competence reassailed him, but this time he dog-

gedly let them babble. He was occupied with

his problem, and in his desperation he concluded

that the stupidity did not greatly matter.

Once he thought he had concluded that it

would be better to get killed directly and end

his troubles. Regarding death thus out of the

corner of his eye, he conceived it to be noth-

ing but rest, and he was filled with a momen-

tary astonishment that he should have made an

extraordinary commotion over the mere matter

of getting killed. He would die; he would go

to some place where he would be understood.

It was useless to expect appreciation of his pro-

found and fine senses from such men as the lieu-

tenant. He must look to the grave for comprehension.

The skirmish fire increased to a long chattering

sound. With it was mingled far-away cheering.

A battery spoke.

Directly the youth would see the skirmishers

running. They were pursued by the sound of

musketry fire. After a time the hot, dangerous

flashes of the rifles were visible. Smoke clouds

went slowly and insolently across the fields like

observant phantoms. The din became crescendo,

like the roar of an oncoming train.

A brigade ahead of them and on the right

went into action with a rending roar. It was

as if it had exploded. And thereafter it lay

stretched in the distance behind a long gray wall,

that one was obliged to look twice at to make

sure that it was smoke.

The youth, forgetting his neat plan of getting

killed, gazed spell bound. His eyes grew wide

and busy with the action of the scene. His

mouth was a little ways open.

Of a sudden he felt a heavy and sad hand laid

upon his shoulder. Awakening from his trance

of observation he turned and beheld the loud soldier.

"It's my first and last battle, old boy," said

the latter, with intense gloom. He was quite

pale and his girlish lip was trembling.

"Eh?" murmured the youth in great astonishment.

"It's my first and last battle, old boy,"

continued the loud soldier. "Something tells me--"


"I'm a gone coon this first time and--and I

w-want you to take these here things--to--my--

folks." He ended in a quavering sob of pity for

himself. He handed the youth a little packet

done up in a yellow envelope.

"Why, what the devil--" began the youth again.

But the other gave him a glance as from the

depths of a tomb, and raised his limp hand in a

prophetic manner and turned away.



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