The Red Badge of Courage

“The Red Badge impels the feeling that the actual truth about a battle has never been guessed before…”
—Harold Frederic, London editor of the New York Times, January 12, 1896.

Many readers recognized something new in Stephen Crane’s depiction of war. The point of view—telling the tale through the eyes and thoughts of one soldier—contributed to the effect, but was not unique. As told by Crane, the experiences of a single soldier in the field (Henry Fleming) are reflected in a stream of impressions and images that communicate the chaos and movement of war and the lack of certainty day to day. Like his readers, Crane’s expectations of “actual truth” had been shaped by newspapers and documentary reports, especially in photographs and the drawings of witnesses. The novel’s success reflects the birth of a modern sensibility; today we feel something is true when it looks like the sort of thing we see in newspapers or on television news. Gone are the trappings of romance and poetry and all the old ways of memorializing battle that had come to seem increasingly artificial, unreal.

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Lesson Objectives

Student will list elements of Crane’s style in The Red Badge of Courage that contribute to its realism.
Guiding Questions to think about during reading:

What elements of Crane’s style in The Red Badge of Courage created a sense of realism?
Pre-reading activities (do this first)

Many of the concepts in this lesson were developed based on this essay by Sheri Helms:

Crane’s Realistic Treatment of War in “The Red Badge of Courage” by Sheri Helms.

Read it by clicking on the link. This resource provides useful background information for understanding this novel.

Read The Red Badge of Courage available at this link:

Directions: Read the Something New? and other information below and answer the questions marked with an *.

Something New?

Think about: Critics and contemporaries of Stephen Crane recognized in his particular brand of realism something surprising and new. Identifying the stylistic elements that made such a striking impression on readers is the primary goal of this lesson. Read the excerpts below to understand how the writer’s techniques were original at that time, and also understand how these techniques have become commonplace today. Theorize how the stylistic elements helped contribute to the impression this novel made on readers.

“Mr. Stephen Crane, the author of The Red Badge of Courage, is a great artist, with something new to say, and consequently, with a new way of saying it.”

-George Wyndham on Crane’s remarkable book, New Review (January 1896, xiv, 30-40).

“The Red Badge impels the feeling that the actual truth about a battle has never been guessed before…”

-Harold Frederic, London editor of the New York Times (January 12, 1896).

“Of our own smaller fiction I have been reading several books without finding a very fresh note except in The Red Badge of Courage, by Mr. Stephen Crane.”
-William Dean Howells, from Howells review, Harper’s Weekly (October 26, 1895, xxxix, 1013).

The Red Badge of Courage… is the narrative of two processes: the process by which a raw youth develops into a tried and trustworthy soldier, and the process by which a regiment that has never been under fire develops into a finished and formidable fighting machine.”
—Sydney Brooks, unsigned review, Saturday Review, January 11, 1896, lxxxi, 44-5.

“No intelligent orders are given; no intelligent movements are made. There is no evidence of drill, none of discipline. There is a constant, senseless, and profane babbling going on, such as one could hear nowhere but in a madhouse. Nowhere are seen the quiet, manly, self-respecting, and patriotic men, influenced by the highest sense of duty, who in reality fought our battles.

It can be said most confidently that no soldier who fought in our recent War ever saw any approach to the battle scenes in this book…”

“The book is a vicious satire upon American soldiers and American armies. The hero of the book … betrays no trace of the reasoning being. No thrill of patriotic devotion to cause or country ever moves his breast, and not even an emotion of manly courage.

-General Alexander C. McClurg, letter to the Dial, April 16, 1898, XX, 227-8.
*1. “Something new.” “Never been guessed before.” “A very fresh note.” The critics agreed there was something different going on here. Many books about war, some quite realistic, had already been written.

Describe what was fresh in Crane’s approach to writing about war.

Locate a brief passage (about a paragraph in length) from The Red Badge of Courage that describes a battle scene with much confusion. Contrast it with the following third-person passage from The Successes and Failures of Chancellorsvilleby General Alfred Pleasonton, from “The Century Illustrated Monthly” Magazine, May 1886 to October 1886 Pleasonton’s account—like Crane’s—is action-packed and quite specific. Its perspective, however, is wider and it is written in the third person.

Shots were fired at hazard in every direction. The First and Third Virginia regiments, no longer recognizing each other, charge upon each other mutually; Stuart’s mounted men, generally so brave and so steadfast, no longer obey the orders of their officers, and gallop off in great disorder. At last quiet is restored, and the brigade finally reaches Spotsylvania Court House, while the small band which has caused so much alarm to Stuart was quietly retiring to Chancellorsville.
*2. Which passage below comes closest to giving the reader the feeling he is actually experiencing the event? In what ways?

Locate a brief passage (about a paragraph) from The Red Badge of Courage that offers a blow-by-blow description of events in a battle. Contrast it with the letter from Peter Boyer to his father, written sometime in May 1863, which summarizes the letter this way: “Boyer provides a description of the Chancellorsville battle in Virginia.” Boyer relates an experience that happened in “the thickest of the fight.”

*3. What do we learn from Boyer about “the thickest of the fight?”

*4. What do we learn from Crane’s passage?

Locate a brief passage (about a paragraph in length) from The Red Badge of Courage that offers vivid imagery to describe events in a battle. Contrast it with The Artillery at Hazel Grove, a description of one small part of the Chancellorsville battle that emphasizes military strategy. The Artillery at Hazel Grove is very specific in its description of the movements of troops and equipment.

*5. What is the purpose of the writer’s actions during the Chancellorsville battle?

*6. What is Crane’s purpose? (author’s purpose)

*7. How does each passage differ in its effect on the reader?

Locate a brief passage (about a paragraph in length) from The Red Badge of Courage that describes the course of an assault using details and mental associations rather than factual or realistic representation. Contrast it with the following excerpt (written in the first person) from “Chancellorsville,” a first-hand account of the battle from the Confederate point of view, from Chapter VIII of Reminiscences of the Civil War by John B.Gordon.

While the battle was progressing at Chancellorsville, near which point Lee’s left rested, his right extended to or near Fredericksburg. Early’s division held this position, and my brigade the right of that division; and it was determined that General Early should attempt, near sunrise, to retake the fort on Marye’s Heights, from which the Confederates had been driven the day before. I was ordered to move with this new brigade, with which I had never been in battle, and to lead in that assault; at least, such was my interpretation of the order as it reached me. Whether it was my fault or the fault of the wording of the order itself, I am not able to say; but there was a serious misunderstanding about it. My brigade was intended, as it afterward appeared, to be only a portion of the attacking force, whereas I had understood the order to direct me to proceed at once to the assault upon the fort; and I proceeded. As I was officially a comparative stranger to the men of this brigade, I said in a few sentences to them that we should know each other better when the battle of the day was over; that I trusted we should go together into that fort, and that if there were a man in the brigade who did not wish to go with us, I would excuse him if he would step to the front and make himself known. Of course, there was no man found who desired to be excused, and I then announced that every man in that splendid brigade of Georgians had thus declared his purpose to go into the fortress. They answered this announcement by a prolonged and thrilling shout, and moved briskly to the attack. When we were under full headway and under fire from the heights, I received an order to halt, with the explanation that the other troops were to unite in the assault; but the order had come too late. My men were already under heavy fire and were nearing the fort. They were rushing upon it with tremendous impetuosity. I replied to the order that it was too late to halt then, and that a few minutes more would decide the result of the charge. General Early playfully but earnestly remarked, after the fort was taken, that success had saved me from being court-martialed for disobedience to orders.
*8. What is the purpose of Gordon’s account?

*9. What is the purpose of Crane’s account?

Locate a brief passage (about a paragraph in length) from The Red Badge of Courage that offers writing in the style of documentary reportage (a kind of “you are there” approach that recounts events by letting people and events speak for themselves through the liberal use of quotations, a focus on details, and a lack of commentary). Compare it to the following excerpt from an English journalist’s reports about the Union troops at the Battle of Bull Run, on Page 741 of Recollections of the Civil War – V by Sir William Howard Russell, Ll.D., Special Correspondent of “The Times” (London). .

At that very moment Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Seward were passing through the ruc’k of the straggling debris. The President soon had a striking proof of the terrible disorganization. An officer of the regular army was endeavoring to get the crowd in Fort Corcoran into order. He was menaced with death, because he threatened to have an officer of the Sixty-ninth shot for disobeying his orders.

The men of the battalion rushed to the President and complained that Sherman—for it was he—had insulted their officer. When the President inquired into the cause of the tumult Sherman replied: “I told the officer that if he refused to obey my orders I would shoot him on the spot! I repeat it now, sir; if I remain in command here, and any man refuses to obey my orders, I will shoot him on the spot.” This firmness in the presence of the President overawed the mutineers, and they set about the work that Sherman had ordered them to execute.
*10. How do the passages resemble one another? In other words, what do these passages have in common? This is acomparison, in which you must identify commonalities between the two passages.

*11. What differences are found? In other words, how are these passages different? This is a contrast, in which you must identify differences between the two passages.

*12. A Day in the Life of _______

Create a first-person account that employs the basic stylistic characteristics of The Red Badge of Courage. Begin with a series of five or more images about a specific event: original sketches, family photographs, historical images, or images from magazines and newspapers. Then create your own illustrated, impressionistic account of a particular event. Your event should be a minimum of 200 words.

*13. It is generally accepted that Crane’s purpose in The Red Badge of Courage was to communicate a complete and realistic picture of one soldier’s experience of battle. Describe how he accomplishes this.

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