As The Red Badge of Courage opens, we do not know precisely where we are or whom we are watching. As the fog clears gradually, we see a part of the Union army upon a riverbank. Rumors are flying among the troops about their own movement. One tall soldier, named Jim but referred to mainly by his height, tells his comrades that he has heard, through several sources, that they will be on the move the next day. Arguments break out between the soldiers whether this rumor is true.
The attention then shifts to another private named Henry. The narrator rarely refers to him by his first name, but rather as "the youth" or "the young soldier." He sits in his tent and thinks about the possibility of finally going into battle. Before joining the army, he dreamed of grand battles that "thrilled him with their sweep and fire," and he seems to desire a "Greeklike" or "Homeric" struggle. His mother had discouraged him from joining but he enlists anyway.
When Henry finally leaves, his mother does not try to convince him to be a hero, as he expected. Instead of an impassioned, beautiful scene, his mother gives him some simple advice. She tells him to be careful and not try to beat the entire rebel army himself and not to fall in with a bad group of soldiers. Then she adds: "I don't know what else to tell yeh, Henry, excepting that yeh must never do no shirking, child, on my account. If so be a time comes when yeh have to be kilt or do a mean thing, why, Henry, don't think of anything cept what's right."
He leaves his mother, who cries softly as he goes, and joins his comrades on the way to Washington. Along the way, they are fed at every station and treated like heroes just for joining the fight. Then they train and drill often. Even though he has yet to taste battle, Henry assumes the war will not be a Greeklike struggle. The veterans he meet claim that the rebels are starving and tattered, but these same veterans taunt the new recruits, so Henry is unsure whether to trust them.
Most of all, Henry is concerned that he will run when he finally faces a conflict. He wants to be a hero, but his fears nag at him, making him doubt his own courage and mettle as he lies in his tent. Jim, the tall soldier, and another soldier, "the loud soldier," both come in to Henry's tent, still arguing about the rumor. Jim says they must be moving out because the cavalry have already moved out. Henry nervously asks Jim how he thinks their regiment will do and gets the vague answer that they will probably do well. Henry then asks if he thinks any of them will run when faced with a fight. Jim is confident that they will fight because they are from good stock; however, there is no way to tell since they have not yet been under fire. Henry finally asks Jim if he would run from the battle. Jim speculates that he might, especially if a whole group began to run. "But if everybody was a-standing and a-fighting, why, I'd stand and fight," he adds. These words comfort Henry as the first chapter ends.
Upon rising the next day, the soldiers discover that the rumor is not true and they are not moving out, as Jim Conklin, the tall soldier, had said. For Henry Fleming, this is not a relief. His dilemma of whether or not he will run in battle is still present. Without a battle to test it, he has no idea if he will be courageous or cowardly. He begins to compare himself with other soldiers in an attempt to gain some confidence. He asks several soldiers questions trying to see if they have similar doubts and fears as he does; and he gets little confirmation of his anxieties in reply. His own feelings about his comrades are ambivalent, for sometimes he thinks them heroes, and sometimes he feels that they are all secretly scared.
One morning, he finds himself in the ranks. His regiment is on the move. The early morning is full of colors: the men's uniforms glow purple, red eyes peer from across the river, and the sun slowly rises yellow in the east. The soldiers return to the validity of the rumors they heard the day before, especially when they turn a hill and find they are no longer along the river. Jim, the tall soldier, praises his powers of perception; others argue with him. Henry takes no part in these discussions. He is still despondent and sad. He keeps to himself, his feelings still ambivalent.
The rest of the soldiers seem to be rather jolly. A certain fat soldier attempts to steal a horse from a house. Its owner, a young woman, comes out to save it. The rest of the regiment jeers and yells at the fat soldier. He is beaten away from the horse and flees back into the soldiers, peppered with catcalls from his fellow troops.
At night, the men pitch camp. Henry Fleming lies in the grass, thinking. He wishes more than anything to be back at home, with its barn and fields. He remembers his milk cows, which caused him so much grief previously, with a bit of joy and nostalgia. He tells himself that he is not fit to be a soldier, and he feels quite different from those soldiers around him who still seem happy and carefree.
The loud soldier, who we learn is named Wilson, comes up to Henry, spouting exciting, confident statements about the upcoming battle. "We'll lick 'em good!" he repeats. His joy at the upcoming battle irritates Henry, who says bitterly that Wilson must think he will do great things. Wilson replies that he does not know if he will do great things, but he will fight "like thunder." Henry then challenges Wilson, saying that he may well run when the battle comes, and that he is not the bravest person in the world. Wilson replies coolly that he never said he was, just that he will give his share of the fighting. Then he tells Henry he talks "as if you thought you was Napoleon Bonaparte." Henry retreats to his tent and hears the sound of card games outside. Exhausted from his ruminating, he falls asleep.
The regiment marches for another two days, picking up their pace on the last day. The men become tired, hot, and cranky. They leave some of their supplies behind, trying to lighten their load. They move quickly like veterans, but they still do not have the look of veterans, as their uniforms are too bright and new.
One morning the tall soldier kicks Henry awake. The men are suddenly running in the fog. They hear the distant sounds of firing. Regiments and other men become gradually visible, as the sun rises and the fog begins to melt away. The regiment eventually climbs a hill. As they get to its crest, Henry expects to see a battle scene.
Below a skirmish is in progress. There are lines of fighters spread across the field, and a flag flutters. The skirmishers melt into the scene only to appear later on. Henry is engrossed, trying to observe everything. His own regiment is still in a wooded area. They eventually pass the body of a dead soldier. His uniform is yellow-brown and his shoe soles are paper-thin. The body enraptures Henry.
Henry continues to think as the regiment marches. He feels threatened by the landscape. He sees it as full of fierce-eyed enemies. All of a sudden, he is full of distrust of his commanders. He is sure they have led the men into a trap. He must get out; he must be the sole eyes and ears aware of this danger.
The overall mood of the troops is now very serious. They are facing a true test of their mettle very soon, and it affects them in different ways. Primarily, though, the untried men are quiet and absorbed, waiting to finally face war. They are first ordered to dig in, but are then ordered to pull back.
The soldiers become annoyed, asking why they were marched this much if they are not going to face the enemy. They are then moved to another position, then another. The anticipation starts to irk Henry, who wants to return to camp or go in a battle. The men eat their lunches and talk about their irritation. The loud soldier, Wilson, and the tall soldier, Jim, argue more about whether or not they are truly eager to fight.
In the afternoon, the regiment goes over the land they took, the same land Henry looked at that morning. It no longer threatens the youth; he feels familiar with it. However, he keeps changing his mind about the upcoming battle. He begins to think that it is just better to be killed directly and end his troubles. Out of the corner of his eye, death seems like rest and appreciation, much better than the present circumstances of fear and uncertainty.
As gray smoke rises above the regiment, Wilson prophetically lays his hand on Henry's shoulder and says, with a trembling lip, that this will be his first and last battle. He gives Henry a packet of letters to send to his family and then, in tears, turns away.
The new regiment is now halted just inside a grove of trees, facing out into a field covered in smoke. They talk about rumors and reports from battles, who has lost what and moved where. As always, there is a disagreement about what has actually happened, this time to a Union battery.
Then the noise and altercation in the field in front of them grows louder, and the new troops grow silent. The Union troops in the field of smoke begin to run. A shell screams overhead the new regiment, landing in the grove and throwing up a shower of pine needles. Bullets begin to fly towards them as well. The lieutenant of the youth's company is then shot in the hand. He curses as if he had hit his finger with a hammer, which sounds quite funny to the rest of the troops. Curiously, the lieutenant holds his wound away from his uniform so as not to stain it.
The Union troops in the field begin to run away and the battle flag falls. The veteran regiments flanking the new troops catcall and jeer the fleeing men. Henry Fleming's regiment is dumbstruck with horror; they witnessed a regiment's defeat right before they are called to fight. The officers try to get the running men to stop, using their swords, fists, and cursing to keep them back. They rage with fury at the retreating regiment. The commander of that brigade gallops about on his horse, weeping. He looks like "a man who has come from bed to go to a fire." The fleeing troops pay no attention to any of these officers as they run.
This makes Henry sure he will run. Seeing the "mad current" of retreat swallow up the men's conscience, he is sure that he too will be driven wild and panic with battle. Yet, as the chapter ends, Henry resolves that now is the time he must see the "monster" that made them run, regardless if he runs himself.
Though The Red Badge of Courage can easily be categorized as a war novel, the psychological overtones of the work take center stage even in the first few chapters. Relying on research rather than first-hand experience, Stephen Crane crafted a portrait of fear within the historical context of The Civil War. Many critics point to Crane as one of the first American authors to initiate a modern style, as exemplified by The Red Badge. Crane’s third-person narrator, concentration on the impressionistic rendering of the natural world and the internal monologue of its protagonist add depth to the novel’s realistic tone, a style popularized in America by William Dean Howells and Frank Norris. However, Crane's style differs from that of his predecessors. For instance, the narrator does not name the characters outright, and the specific setting is never revealed. This serves Crane’s purpose of investigating the innerworkings of his main character, creating an allegorical or more universal quality in the text.
Henry Fleming, identified as “the youth” is a newly enlisted boy with dreams of the glory of war. Calling Henry "the youth" is the most important indicator that this novel is centered on the evolution of Henry’s maturity and psychological development rather than a specific indictment or championing of war. In this first chapter, Henry is unproven even to himself. Before enlisting, the possibility of cowardice does not arise; he assumes battles are unwaveringly valiant struggles of life and death. He does not enlist because of an overwhelming sense of patriotism or even the will to fight, but rather due to his fantasies of heroic deeds. His mother offers a more realistic assessment; rather than instruct him to emulate the Spartans and "return carrying your shield or on top of it" (meaning either victorious or killed in combat), she tells him to do only what he thinks is right. This is a critical moment in both the development of Henry’s character and the plot of the book. The tone here is much more ambivalent and the question of whether Henry will run or face battle becomes the focus of the narrative in the early chapters.
Several tones are at work in The Red Badge – realism, irony and metaphor. Crane’s realistic tone manifests in Henry’s challenged perceptions of the war. He finds war is not as he imagined and the more time passes without being tested, the less certain he becomes of his own capability. Before he is ensnared in battle, Henry's feelings remain ambivalent and shifting. He almost always has some opinion or thought about battle, but they change often – from fear and dread upon seeing the battle, to anticipation of an actual fight, to frustration when the men are being withdrawn. Before their bluster is silenced by the battle, the young soldiers in the opening chapters talk amongst themselves in vernacular common to the time period, reinforcing the historically accurate aspects of the work. Crane’s use of colloquial speech also adds a layer of humor to the talk of war. Henry’s shifting thoughts signal a tone of ironic detachment. His warped assessments of the world around him and his own mind, evident even in the early chapters, often run counter to what is being described by the narrator.
Even the title itself signals the vein of irony running through the novel. "The red badge of courage" is a wound sustained in battle – the tangible proof of bravery. When a shell hits the lieutenant of Henry's company, note that he has no desire to play up the severity of the injury. He holds the wound away from him, not wanting to get blood on his uniform, not wanting red to mingle with the blue. To the lieutenant, redness alone is not a badge of courage. His wound was almost accidental and not the result of a show of glory. There are different levels of authenticity to the wounds and, as we see in the first chapter with Henry’s mother’s speech, courage is not guaranteed. Henry’s yearning for a “red badge” drives the narrative and, as we see later in the novel, it is delivered ironically.
Yet Crane has written into this novel a clear way to tell certain characteristics even without explicit direction from the narrator or Fleming - color metaphors. Crane uses color metaphors to imply certain psychological meanings. For example, Henry's mother's discouragement is described as throwing a "yellow light upon the color of his ambitions." The use of yellow here is deliberate; it refers to cowardice. This continues throughout the book, as many other color associations are repeatedly made - the "red eyes" of fire and imminent battle to imply danger; the black silhouette of a colonel on horseback to imply death or authority; and, most importantly, the gray of fog and uniforms to imply the unknown.
Gray has a particular historical significance, as the uniforms of the Rebel army were gray. However, much like blue often relates not only to the literal color of the Union uniform but also to Henry's melancholy and brooding, Rebel gray also symbolizes the unknown of battle. The blue Union soldiers, who have been thinking about the implications of battle for days, are now faced with the enemy, both in the metaphor of the "blood-swollen god" of war and the Rebel army. The gray of smoke and fog symbolizes this unknown. Henry also has a relationship with nature and Crane uses elements of nature to communicate themes and character. These two metaphors coalesce in the grey fog of the battle. Henry and his regiment do not see the battle clearly; they see it in a haze. This shows their lack of knowledge. The haze and gray colors represent the unknown of battle and the detachment they have experienced thus far.