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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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THE youth cringed as if discovered in a crime.

By heavens, they had won after all! The im-

becile line had remained and become victors.

He could hear cheering.

He lifted himself upon his toes and looked in

the direction of the fight. A yellow fog lay wal-

lowing on the treetops. From beneath it came

the clatter of musketry. Hoarse cries told of an advance.

He turned away amazed and angry. He felt

that he had been wronged.

He had fled, he told himself, because annihila-

tion approached. He had done a good part in

saving himself, who was a little piece of the army.

He had considered the time, he said, to be one in

which it was the duty of every little piece to res-

cue itself if possible. Later the officers could fit

the little pieces together again, and make a battle

front. If none of the little pieces were wise enough

to save themselves from the flurry of death at such

a time, why, then, where would be the army?

It was all plain that he had proceeded according to

very correct and commendable rules. His ac-

tions had been sagacious things. They had been

full of strategy. They were the work of a master's legs.

Thoughts of his comrades came to him. The

brittle blue line had withstood the blows and won.

He grew bitter over it. It seemed that the blind

ignorance and stupidity of those little pieces had

betrayed him. He had been overturned and

crushed by their lack of sense in holding the po-

sition, when intelligent deliberation would have

convinced them that it was impossible. He, the

enlightened man who looks afar in the dark, had

fled because of his superior perceptions and

knowledge. He felt a great anger against his

comrades. He knew it could be proved that

they had been fools.

He wondered what they would remark when

later he appeared in camp. His mind heard

howls of derision. Their density would not en-

able them to understand his sharper point of view.

He began to pity himself acutely. He was

ill used. He was trodden beneath the feet of an

iron injustice. He had proceeded with wisdom

and from the most righteous motives under

heaven's blue only to be frustrated by hateful


A dull, animal-like rebellion against his fel-

lows, war in the abstract, and fate grew within

him. He shambled along with bowed head, his

brain in a tumult of agony and despair. When

he looked loweringly up, quivering at each

sound, his eyes had the expression of those of

a criminal who thinks his guilt and his punishment great,

and knows that he can find no words.

He went from the fields into a thick woods, as

if resolved to bury himself. He wished to get

out of hearing of the crackling shots which were

to him like voices.

The ground was cluttered with vines and

bushes, and the trees grew close and spread out

like bouquets. He was obliged to force his way

with much noise. The creepers, catching against

his legs, cried out harshly as their sprays were

torn from the barks of trees. The swishing sap-

lings tried to make known his presence to the

world. He could not conciliate the forest. As

he made his way, it was always calling out prot-

estations. When he separated embraces of trees

and vines the disturbed foliages waved their arms

and turned their face leaves toward him. He

dreaded lest these noisy motions and cries should

bring men to look at him. So he went far,

seeking dark and intricate places.

After a time the sound of musketry grew faint

and the cannon boomed in the distance. The sun,

suddenly apparent, blazed among the trees. The

insects were making rhythmical noises. They

seemed to be grinding their teeth in unison. A

woodpecker stuck his impudent head around the

side of a tree. A bird flew on lighthearted wing.

Off was the rumble of death. It seemed now

that Nature had no ears.

This landscape gave him assurance. A fair

field holding life. It was the religion of peace.

It would die if its timid eyes were compelled to

see blood. He conceived Nature to be a woman

with a deep aversion to tragedy.

He threw a pine cone at a jovial squirrel, and

he ran with chattering fear. High in a treetop

he stopped, and, poking his head cautiously from

behind a branch, looked down with an air of trepidation.

The youth felt triumphant at this exhibition.

There was the law, he said. Nature had given

him a sign. The squirrel, immediately upon rec-

ognizing danger, had taken to his legs without

ado. He did not stand stolidly baring his furry

belly to the missile, and die with an upward

glance at the sympathetic heavens. On the con-

trary, he had fled as fast as his legs could carry

him; and he was but an ordinary squirrel, too--

doubtless no philosopher of his race. The youth

wended, feeling that Nature was of his mind.

She re-enforced his argument with proofs that

lived where the sun shone.

Once he found himself almost into a swamp.

He was obliged to walk upon bog tufts and

watch his feet to keep from the oily mire. Paus-

ing at one time to look about him he saw, out at

some black water, a small animal pounce in and

emerge directly with a gleaming fish.

The youth went again into the deep thickets.

The brushed branches made a noise that drowned

the sounds of cannon. He walked on, going from

obscurity into promises of a greater obscurity.

At length he reached a place where the high,

arching boughs made a chapel. He softly pushed

the green doors aside and entered. Pine needles

were a gentle brown carpet. There was a reli-

gious half light.

Near the threshold he stopped, horror-stricken

at the sight of a thing.

He was being looked at by a dead man who

was seated with his back against a columnlike

tree. The corpse was dressed in a uniform that

once had been blue, but was now faded to a mel-

ancholy shade of green. The eyes, staring at the

youth, had changed to the dull hue to be seen on

the side of a dead fish. The mouth was open.

Its red had changed to an appalling yellow.

Over the gray skin of the face ran little ants.

One was trundling some sort of a bundle along

the upper lip.

The youth gave a shriek as he confronted the

thing. He was for moments turned to stone be-

fore it. He remained staring into the liquid-look-

ing eyes. The dead man and the living man ex-

changed a long look. Then the youth cautiously

put one hand behind him and brought it against

a tree. Leaning upon this he retreated, step by

step, with his face still toward the thing. He

feared that if he turned his back the body might

spring up and stealthily pursue him.

The branches, pushing against him, threat-

ened to throw him over upon it. His unguided

feet, too, caught aggravatingly in brambles; and

with it all he received a subtle suggestion to

touch the corpse. As he thought of his hand

upon it he shuddered profoundly.

At last he burst the bonds which had fastened

him to the spot and fled, unheeding the under-

brush. He was pursued by a sight of the black

ants swarming greedily upon the gray face and

venturing horribly near to the eyes.

After a time he paused, and, breathless and

panting, listened. He imagined some strange

voice would come from the dead throat and

squawk after him in horrible menaces.

The trees about the portal of the chapel

moved soughingly in a soft wind. A sad silence

was upon the little guarding edifice.



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