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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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A SPUTTERING of musketry was always to be

heard. Later, the cannon had entered the dis-

pute. In the fog-filled air their voices made a

thudding sound. The reverberations were con-

tinued. This part of the world led a strange,

battleful existence.

The youth's regiment was marched to relieve

a command that had lain long in some damp

trenches. The men took positions behind a curv-

ing line of rifle pits that had been turned up, like

a large furrow, along the line of woods. Before

them was a level stretch, peopled with short,

deformed stumps. From the woods beyond

came the dull popping of the skirmishers and

pickets, firing in the fog. From the right came

the noise of a terrific fracas.

The men cuddled behind the small embank-

ment and sat in easy attitudes awaiting their

turn. Many had their backs to the firing. The

youth's friend lay down, buried his face in his arms,

and almost instantly, it seemed, he was in a deep sleep.

The youth leaned his breast against the

brown dirt and peered over at the woods and up

and down the line. Curtains of trees interfered

with his ways of vision. He could see the low

line of trenches but for a short distance. A few

idle flags were perched on the dirt hills. Behind

them were rows of dark bodies with a few heads

sticking curiously over the top.

Always the noise of skirmishers came from

the woods on the front and left, and the din on

the right had grown to frightful proportions.

The guns were roaring without an instant's pause

for breath. It seemed that the cannon had come

from all parts and were engaged in a stupendous

wrangle. It became impossible to make a sentence heard.

The youth wished to launch a joke--a quota-

tion from newspapers. He desired to say, "All

quiet on the Rappahannock," but the guns refused

to permit even a comment upon their uproar.

He never successfully concluded the sentence.

But at last the guns stopped, and among the

men in the rifle pits rumors again flew, like birds,

but they were now for the most part black

creatures who flapped their wings drearily near

to the ground and refused to rise on any wings of

hope. The men's faces grew doleful from the

interpreting of omens. Tales of hesitation and

uncertainty on the part of those high in place and

responsibility came to their ears. Stories of

disaster were borne into their minds with many

proofs. This din of musketry on the right, grow-

ing like a released genie of sound, expressed and

emphasized the army's plight.

The men were disheartened and began to

mutter. They made gestures expressive of the

sentence: "Ah, what more can we do?" And it

could always be seen that they were bewildered

by the alleged news and could not fully compre-

hend a defeat.

Before the gray mists had been totally ob-

literated by the sun rays, the regiment was march-

ing in a spread column that was retiring carefully

through the woods. The disordered, hurrying

lines of the enemy could sometimes be seen down

through the groves and little fields. They were

yelling, shrill and exultant.

At this sight the youth forgot many personal

matters and became greatly enraged. He ex-

ploded in loud sentences. "B'jiminey, we're

generaled by a lot 'a lunkheads."

"More than one feller has said that t'-day,"

observed a man.

His friend, recently aroused, was still very

drowsy. He looked behind him until his mind

took in the meaning of the movement. Then he

sighed. "Oh, well, I s'pose we got licked," he

remarked sadly.

The youth had a thought that it would not be

handsome for him to freely condemn other men.

He made an attempt to restrain himself, but the

words upon his tongue were too bitter. He

presently began a long and intricate denunciation

of the commander of the forces.

"Mebbe, it wa'n't all his fault--not all to-

gether. He did th' best he knowed. It's our

luck t' git licked often," said his friend in a weary

tone. He was trudging along with stooped

shoulders and shifting eyes like a man who has

been caned and kicked.

"Well, don't we fight like the devil? Don't

we do all that men can?" demanded the youth loudly.

He was secretly dumfounded at this sentiment

when it came from his lips. For a moment his

face lost its valor and he looked guiltily about

him. But no one questioned his right to deal in

such words, and presently he recovered his air

of courage. He went on to repeat a statement

he had heard going from group to group at the

camp that morning. "The brigadier said he

never saw a new reg'ment fight the way we

fought yestirday, didn't he? And we didn't do

better than many another reg'ment, did we?

Well, then, you can't say it's th' army's fault, can you?"

In his reply, the friend's voice was stern. "'A

course not," he said. "No man dare say we

don't fight like th' devil. No man will ever dare

say it. Th' boys fight like hell-roosters. But

still--still, we don't have no luck."

"Well, then, if we fight like the devil an'

don't ever whip, it must be the general's fault,"

said the youth grandly and decisively. "And I

don't see any sense in fighting and fighting and

fighting, yet always losing through some derned

old lunkhead of a general."

A sarcastic man who was tramping at the

youth's side, then spoke lazily. "Mebbe yeh

think yeh fit th' hull battle yestirday, Fleming,"

he remarked.

The speech pierced the youth. Inwardly he

was reduced to an abject pulp by these chance

words. His legs quaked privately. He cast a

frightened glance at the sarcastic man.

"Why, no," he hastened to say in a concili-

ating voice, "I don't think I fought the whole

battle yesterday."

But the other seemed innocent of any deeper

meaning. Apparently, he had no information.

It was merely his habit. "Oh!" he replied in the

same tone of calm derision.

The youth, nevertheless, felt a threat. His

mind shrank from going near to the danger, and

thereafter he was silent. The significance of the

sarcastic man's words took from him all loud

moods that would make him appear prominent.

He became suddenly a modest person.

There was low-toned talk among the troops.

The officers were impatient and snappy, their

countenances clouded with the tales of misfor-

tune. The troops, sifting through the forest,

were sullen. In the youth's company once a

man's laugh rang out. A dozen soldiers turned

their faces quickly toward him and frowned with

vague displeasure.

The noise of firing dogged their footsteps.

Sometimes, it seemed to be driven a little way,

but it always returned again with increased

insolence. The men muttered and cursed,

throwing black looks in its direction.

In a clear space the troops were at last halted.

Regiments and brigades, broken and detached

through their encounters with thickets, grew

together again and lines were faced toward the

pursuing bark of the enemy's infantry.

This noise, following like the yellings of eager,

metallic hounds, increased to a loud and joyous

burst, and then, as the sun went serenely up the

sky, throwing illuminating rays into the gloomy

thickets, it broke forth into prolonged pealings.

The woods began to crackle as if afire.

"Whoop-a-dadee," said a man, "here we are!

Everybody fightin'. Blood an' destruction."

"I was willin' t' bet they'd attack as soon as

th' sun got fairly up," savagely asserted the

lieutenant who commanded the youth's company.

He jerked without mercy at his little mustache.

He strode to and fro with dark dignity in the

rear of his men, who were lying down behind

whatever protection they had collected.

A battery had trundled into position in the

rear and was thoughtfully shelling the distance.

The regiment, unmolested as yet, awaited the

moment when the gray shadows of the woods

before them should be slashed by the lines of

flame. There was much growling and swearing.

"Good Gawd," the youth grumbled, "we're

always being chased around like rats! It makes

me sick. Nobody seems to know where we go

or why we go. We just get fired around from

pillar to post and get licked here and get licked

there, and nobody knows what it's done for. It

makes a man feel like a damn' kitten in a bag.

Now, I'd like to know what the eternal thunders

we was marched into these woods for anyhow,

unless it was to give the rebs a regular pot shot

at us. We came in here and got our legs all

tangled up in these cussed briers, and then we

begin to fight and the rebs had an easy time of it.

Don't tell me it's just luck! I know better. It's

this derned old--"

The friend seemed jaded, but he interrupted

his comrade with a voice of calm confidence.

"It'll turn out all right in th' end," he said.

"Oh, the devil it will! You always talk like a

dog-hanged parson. Don't tell me! I know--"

At this time there was an interposition by the

savage-minded lieutenant, who was obliged to

vent some of his inward dissatisfaction upon his

men. "You boys shut right up! There no

need 'a your wastin' your breath in long-winded

arguments about this an' that an' th' other.

You've been jawin' like a lot 'a old hens. All

you've got t' do is to fight, an' you'll get plenty 'a

that t' do in about ten minutes. Less talkin' an'

more fightin' is what's best for you boys. I never

saw sech gabbling jackasses."

He paused, ready to pounce upon any man

who might have the temerity to reply. No words

being said, he resumed his dignified pacing.

"There's too much chin music an' too little

fightin' in this war, anyhow," he said to them,

turning his head for a final remark.

The day had grown more white, until the sun

shed his full radiance upon the thronged forest.

A sort of a gust of battle came sweeping toward

that part of the line where lay the youth's regi-

ment. The front shifted a trifle to meet it square-

ly. There was a wait. In this part of the field

there passed slowly the intense moments that pre-

cede the tempest.

A single rifle flashed in a thicket before the

regiment. In an instant it was joined by many

others. There was a mighty song of clashes and

crashes that went sweeping through the woods.

The guns in the rear, aroused and enraged by

shells that had been thrown burlike at them,

suddenly involved themselves in a hideous alter-

cation with another band of guns. The battle

roar settled to a rolling thunder, which was a

single, long explosion.

In the regiment there was a peculiar kind of

hesitation denoted in the attitudes of the men.

They were worn, exhausted, having slept but lit-

tle and labored much. They rolled their eyes

toward the advancing battle as they stood await-

ing the shock. Some shrank and flinched. They

stood as men tied to stakes.



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