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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 the two youths turned with the flag

they saw that much of the regiment had crum-

bled away, and the dejected remnant was coming

slowly back. The men, having hurled themselves

in projectile fashion, had presently expended their

forces. They slowly retreated, with their faces

still toward the spluttering woods, and their hot

rifles still replying to the din. Several officers

were giving orders, their voices keyed to screams.

"Where in hell yeh goin'?" the lieutenant was

asking in a sarcastic howl. And a red-bearded

officer, whose voice of triple brass could plainly

be heard, was commanding: "Shoot into 'em!

Shoot into 'em, Gawd damn their souls!" There

was a melee of screeches, in which the men were

ordered to do conflicting and impossible things.

The youth and his friend had a small scuffle

over the flag. "Give it t' me!" "No, let me

keep it!" Each felt satisfied with the other's pos-

session of it, but each felt bound to declare, by

an offer to carry the emblem, his willingness to

further risk himself. The youth roughly pushed

his friend away.

The regiment fell back to the stolid trees.

There it halted for a moment to blaze at some

dark forms that had begun to steal upon its track.

Presently it resumed its march again, curving

among the tree trunks. By the time the depleted

regiment had again reached the first open space

they were receiving a fast and merciless fire.

There seemed to be mobs all about them.

The greater part of the men, discouraged,

their spirits worn by the turmoil, acted as if

stunned. They accepted the pelting of the bul-

lets with bowed and weary heads. It was of no

purpose to strive against walls. It was of no use

to batter themselves against granite. And from

this consciousness that they had attempted to

conquer an unconquerable thing there seemed

to arise a feeling that they had been betrayed.

They glowered with bent brows, but danger-

ously, upon some of the officers, more particu-

larly upon the red-bearded one with the voice of

triple brass.

However, the rear of the regiment was fringed

with men, who continued to shoot irritably at the

advancing foes. They seemed resolved to make

every trouble. The youthful lieutenant was per-

haps the last man in the disordered mass. His

forgotten back was toward the enemy. He had

been shot in the arm. It hung straight and rigid.

Occasionally he would cease to remember it, and

be about to emphasize an oath with a sweeping

gesture. The multiplied pain caused him to

swear with incredible power.

The youth went along with slipping, uncertain

feet. He kept watchful eyes rearward. A scowl

of mortification and rage was upon his face. He

had thought of a fine revenge upon the officer

who had referred to him and his fellows as mule

drivers. But he saw that it could not come to

pass. His dreams had collapsed when the mule

drivers, dwindling rapidly, had wavered and hes-

itated on the little clearing, and then had recoiled.

And now the retreat of the mule drivers was a

march of shame to him.

A dagger-pointed gaze from without his black-

ened face was held toward the enemy, but his

greater hatred was riveted upon the man, who,

not knowing him, had called him a mule driver.

When he knew that he and his comrades had

failed to do anything in successful ways that might

bring the little pangs of a kind of remorse upon

the officer, the youth allowed the rage of the baf-

fled to possess him. This cold officer upon a

monument, who dropped epithets unconcernedly

down, would be finer as a dead man, he thought.

So grievous did he think it that he could

never possess the secret right to taunt truly in answer.

He had pictured red letters of curious revenge.

"We ARE mule drivers, are we?" And now he

was compelled to throw them away.

He presently wrapped his heart in the cloak

of his pride and kept the flag erect. He ha-

rangued his fellows, pushing against their chests

with his free hand. To those he knew well he

made frantic appeals, beseeching them by name.

Between him and the lieutenant, scolding and

near to losing his mind with rage, there was felt a

subtle fellowship and equality. They supported

each other in all manner of hoarse, howling protests.

But the regiment was a machine run down.

The two men babbled at a forceless thing. The

soldiers who had heart to go slowly were con-

tinually shaken in their resolves by a knowledge

that comrades were slipping with speed back to

the lines. It was difficult to think of reputation

when others were thinking of skins. Wounded

men were left crying on this black journey.

The smoke fringes and flames blustered al-

ways. The youth, peering once through a sud-

den rift in a cloud, saw a brown mass of troops,

interwoven and magnified until they appeared to

be thousands. A fierce-hued flag flashed before

his vision.

Immediately, as if the uplifting of the smoke

had been prearranged, the discovered troops

burst into a rasping yell, and a hundred flames

jetted toward the retreating band. A rolling

gray cloud again interposed as the regiment dog-

gedly replied. The youth had to depend again

upon his misused ears, which were trembling

and buzzing from the melee of musketry and yells.

The way seemed eternal. In the clouded haze

men became panicstricken with the thought that

the regiment had lost its path, and was proceed-

ing in a perilous direction. Once the men who

headed the wild procession turned and came push-

ing back against their comrades, screaming that

they were being fired upon from points which

they had considered to be toward their own lines.

At this cry a hysterical fear and dismay beset the

troops. A soldier, who heretofore had been am-

bitious to make the regiment into a wise little

band that would proceed calmly amid the huge-

appearing difficulties, suddenly sank down and

buried his face in his arms with an air of bowing

to a doom. From another a shrill lamentation

rang out filled with profane allusions to a general.

Men ran hither and thither, seeking with their

eyes roads of escape. With serene regularity, as

if controlled by a schedule, bullets buffed into men.

The youth walked stolidly into the midst of

the mob, and with his flag in his hands took a

stand as if he expected an attempt to push him to

the ground. He unconsciously assumed the atti-

tude of the color bearer in the fight of the pre-

ceding day. He passed over his brow a hand

that trembled. His breath did not come freely.

He was choking during this small wait for the crisis.

His friend came to him. "Well, Henry, I

guess this is good-by--John."

"Oh, shut up, you damned fool!" replied the

youth, and he would not look at the other.

The officers labored like politicians to beat

the mass into a proper circle to face the men-

aces. The ground was uneven and torn. The

men curled into depressions and fitted themselves

snugly behind whatever would frustrate a bullet.

The youth noted with vague surprise that the

lieutenant was standing mutely with his legs far

apart and his sword held in the manner of a cane.

The youth wondered what had happened to his

vocal organs that he no more cursed.

There was something curious in this little in-

tent pause of the lieutenant. He was like a babe

which, having wept its fill, raises its eyes and

fixes upon a distant toy. He was engrossed in

this contemplation, and the soft under lip quivered

from self-whispered words.

Some lazy and ignorant smoke curled slowly.

The men, hiding from the bullets, waited anxiously

for it to lift and disclose the plight of the regiment.

The silent ranks were suddenly thrilled by the

eager voice of the youthful lieutenant bawling

out: "Here they come! Right onto us,

b'Gawd!" His further words were lost in a roar

of wicked thunder from the men's rifles.

The youth's eyes had instantly turned in the

direction indicated by the awakened and agitated

lieutenant, and he had seen the haze of treachery

disclosing a body of soldiers of the enemy. They

were so near that he could see their features.

There was a recognition as he looked at the types

of faces. Also he perceived with dim amazement

that their uniforms were rather gay in effect,

being light gray, accented with a brilliant-hued

facing. Too, the clothes seemed new.

These troops had apparently been going for-

ward with caution, their rifles held in readiness,

when the youthful lieutenant had discovered

them and their movement had been interrupted

by the volley from the blue regiment. From the

moment's glimpse, it was derived that they had

been unaware of the proximity of their dark-

suited foes or had mistaken the direction. Al-

most instantly they were shut utterly from the

youth's sight by the smoke from the energetic

rifles of his companions. He strained his vision

to learn the accomplishment of the volley, but the

smoke hung before him.

The two bodies of troops exchanged blows in

the manner of a pair of boxers. The fast angry

firings went back and forth. The men in blue

were intent with the despair of their circum-

stances and they seized upon the revenge to be

had at close range. Their thunder swelled loud

and valiant. Their curving front bristled with

flashes and the place resounded with the clangor

of their ramrods. The youth ducked and dodged

for a time and achieved a few unsatisfactory

views of the enemy. There appeared to be many

of them and they were replying swiftly. They

seemed moving toward the blue regiment, step

by step. He seated himself gloomily on the

ground with his flag between his knees.

As he noted the vicious, wolflike temper of

his comrades he had a sweet thought that if the

enemy was about to swallow the regimental

broom as a large prisoner, it could at least have

the consolation of going down with bristles forward.

But the blows of the antagonist began to

grow more weak. Fewer bullets ripped the air,

and finally, when the men slackened to learn of

the fight, they could see only dark, floating

smoke. The regiment lay still and gazed. Pres-

ently some chance whim came to the pestering

blur, and it began to coil heavily away. The men

saw a ground vacant of fighters. It would have

been an empty stage if it were not for a few

corpses that lay thrown and twisted into fantastic

shapes upon the sward.

At sight of this tableau, many of the men in

blue sprang from behind their covers and made

an ungainly dance of joy. Their eyes burned

and a hoarse cheer of elation broke from their dry lips.

It had begun to seem to them that events were

trying to prove that they were impotent. These

little battles had evidently endeavored to demon-

strate that the men could not fight well. When

on the verge of submission to these opinions, the

small duel had showed them that the propor-

tions were not impossible, and by it they had

revenged themselves upon their misgivings and

upon the foe.

The impetus of enthusiasm was theirs again.

They gazed about them with looks of uplifted

pride, feeling new trust in the grim, always

confident weapons in their hands. And they were men.



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