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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 woods again began to pour forth

the dark-hued masses of the enemy the youth felt

serene self-confidence. He smiled briefly when

he saw men dodge and duck at the long screech-

ings of shells that were thrown in giant handfuls

over them. He stood, erect and tranquil, watch-

ing the attack begin against a part of the line

that made a blue curve along the side of an adja-

cent hill. His vision being unmolested by smoke

from the rifles of his companions, he had oppor-

tunities to see parts of the hard fight. It was a

relief to perceive at last from whence came some

of these noises which had been roared into his ears.

Off a short way he saw two regiments fight-

ing a little separate battle with two other regi-

ments. It was in a cleared space, wearing a set-

apart look. They were blazing as if upon a

wager, giving and taking tremendous blows.

The firings were incredibly fierce and rapid.

These intent regiments apparently were oblivious

of all larger purposes of war, and were slugging

each other as if at a matched game.

In another direction he saw a magnificent

brigade going with the evident intention of driv-

ing the enemy from a wood. They passed in out

of sight and presently there was a most awe-in-

spiring racket in the wood. The noise was un-

speakable. Having stirred this prodigious up-

roar, and, apparently, finding it too prodigious,

the brigade, after a little time, came marching

airily out again with its fine formation in nowise

disturbed. There were no traces of speed in its

movements. The brigade was jaunty and seemed

to point a proud thumb at the yelling wood.

On a slope to the left there was a long row of

guns, gruff and maddened, denouncing the

enemy, who, down through the woods, were

forming for another attack in the pitiless mo-

notony of conflicts. The round red discharges

from the guns made a crimson flare and a high,

thick smoke. Occasional glimpses could be

caught of groups of the toiling artillerymen. In

the rear of this row of guns stood a house, calm

and white, amid bursting shells. A congregation

of horses, tied to a long railing, were tugging

frenziedly at their bridles. Men were running

hither and thither.

The detached battle between the four regi-

ments lasted for some time. There chanced to

be no interference, and they settled their dispute

by themselves. They struck savagely and pow-

erfully at each other for a period of minutes, and

then the lighter-hued regiments faltered and

drew back, leaving the dark-blue lines shouting.

The youth could see the two flags shaking with

laughter amid the smoke remnants.

Presently there was a stillness, pregnant with

meaning. The blue lines shifted and changed a

trifle and stared expectantly at the silent woods

and fields before them. The hush was solemn

and churchlike, save for a distant battery that,

evidently unable to remain quiet, sent a faint

rolling thunder over the ground. It irritated,

like the noises of unimpressed boys. The men

imagined that it would prevent their perched

ears from hearing the first words of the new battle.

Of a sudden the guns on the slope roared out

a message of warning. A spluttering sound had

begun in the woods. It swelled with amazing

speed to a profound clamor that involved the

earth in noises. The splitting crashes swept

along the lines until an interminable roar was

developed. To those in the midst of it it became

a din fitted to the universe. It was the whirring

and thumping of gigantic machinery, complica-

tions among the smaller stars. The youth's ears

were filled up. They were incapable of hearing more.

On an incline over which a road wound he

saw wild and desperate rushes of men perpet-

ually backward and forward in riotous surges.

These parts of the opposing armies were two

long waves that pitched upon each other madly

at dictated points. To and fro they swelled.

Sometimes, one side by its yells and cheers would

proclaim decisive blows, but a moment later

the other side would be all yells and cheers.

Once the youth saw a spray of light forms go in

houndlike leaps toward the waving blue lines.

There was much howling, and presently it went

away with a vast mouthful of prisoners. Again,

he saw a blue wave dash with such thunderous

force against a gray obstruction that it seemed to

clear the earth of it and leave nothing but

trampled sod. And always in their swift and

deadly rushes to and fro the men screamed

and yelled like maniacs.

Particular pieces of fence or secure positions

behind collections of trees were wrangled over,

as gold thrones or pearl bedsteads. There were

desperate lunges at these chosen spots seemingly

every instant, and most of them were bandied like

light toys between the contending forces. The

youth could not tell from the battle flags flying

like crimson foam in many directions which color

of cloth was winning.

His emaciated regiment bustled forth with

undiminished fierceness when its time came.

When assaulted again by bullets, the men burst

out in a barbaric cry of rage and pain. They

bent their heads in aims of intent hatred

behind the projected hammers of their guns.

Their ramrods clanged loud with fury as their

eager arms pounded the cartridges into the rifle

barrels. The front of the regiment was a smokewall

penetrated by the flashing points of yellow and red.

Wallowing in the fight, they were in an

astonishingly short time resmudged. They

surpassed in stain and dirt all their previous ap-

pearances. Moving to and fro with strained

exertion, jabbering the while, they were, with

their swaying bodies, black faces, and glowing

eyes, like strange and ugly friends jigging heavily

in the smoke.

The lieutenant, returning from a tour after a

bandage, produced from a hidden receptacle of

his mind new and portentous oaths suited to the

emergency. Strings of expletives he swung

lashlike over the backs of his men, and it was

evident that his previous efforts had in nowise

impaired his resources.

The youth, still the bearer of the colors, did

not feel his idleness. He was deeply absorbed as

a spectator. The crash and swing of the great

drama made him lean forward, intent-eyed, his

face working in small contortions. Sometimes he

prattled, words coming unconsciously from him

in grotesque exclamations. He did not know

that he breathed; that the flag hung silently over

him, so absorbed was he.

A formidable line of the enemy came within

dangerous range. They could be seen plainly--

tall, gaunt men with excited faces running with

long strides toward a wandering fence.

At sight of this danger the men suddenly

ceased their cursing monotone. There was an

instant of strained silence before they threw up

their rifles and fired a plumping volley at the

foes. There had been no order given; the men,

upon recognizing the menace, had immediately

let drive their flock of bullets without waiting for word

of command.

But the enemy were quick to gain the protection

of the wandering line of fence. They slid down

behind it with remarkable celerity, and from this

position they began briskly to slice up the blue men.

These latter braced their energies for a great

struggle. Often, white clinched teeth shone

from the dusky faces. Many heads surged to

and fro, floating upon a pale sea of smoke.

Those behind the fence frequently shouted and

yelped in taunts and gibelike cries, but the regi-

ment maintained a stressed silence. Perhaps, at

this new assault the men recalled the fact that

they had been named mud diggers, and it made

their situation thrice bitter. They were breath-

lessly intent upon keeping the ground and thrust-

ing away the rejoicing body of the enemy. They

fought swiftly and with a despairing savageness

denoted in their expressions.

The youth had resolved not to budge what-

ever should happen. Some arrows of scorn that

had buried themselves in his heart had generated

strange and unspeakable hatred. It was clear

to him that his final and absolute revenge was to

be achieved by his dead body lying, torn and

gluttering, upon the field. This was to be a

poignant retaliation upon the officer who had

said "mule drivers," and later "mud diggers,"

for in all the wild graspings of his mind for a

unit responsible for his sufferings and commo-

tions he always seized upon the man who had

dubbed him wrongly. And it was his idea,

vaguely formulated, that his corpse would be for

those eyes a great and salt reproach.

The regiment bled extravagantly. Grunting

bundles of blue began to drop. The orderly

sergeant of the youth's company was shot through

the cheeks. Its supports being injured, his jaw

hung afar down, disclosing in the wide cavern of

his mouth a pulsing mass of blood and teeth.

And with it all he made attempts to cry out.

In his endeavor there was a dreadful earnestness,

as if he conceived that one great shriek would

make him well.

The youth saw him presently go rearward.

His strength seemed in nowise impaired. He

ran swiftly, casting wild glances for succor.

Others fell down about the feet of their com-

panions. Some of the wounded crawled out and

away, but many lay still, their bodies twisted into

impossible shapes.

The youth looked once for his friend. He

saw a vehement young man, powder-smeared and

frowzled, whom he knew to be him. The lieu-

tenant, also, was unscathed in his position at the

rear. He had continued to curse, but it was now

with the air of a man who was using his last box of oaths.

For the fire of the regiment had begun to

wane and drip. The robust voice, that had come

strangely from the thin ranks, was growing rapidly weak.



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