No firing threatens the regiment as they return to their blue lines. The men are nervous as they go, suspecting that they may be fired on at anytime. When they get back to their lines, they are peppered with sarcastic questions, asking where they have been and why they are coming back. The men of the regiment make no reply, except one soldier who challenges any one of them to a fistfight.
Henry is stung by these remarks. He glowers at the men who ridicule him. He looks back at the ground they had covered, and it seems different. The grove where they had their stand is much closer; the time passed now seems short. He wonders at the wide range of emotions and information crammed into such a small amount of time. Yet, he is still satisfied with his performance during the charge. He had little time to do so before, and now reflects pleasantly on the colors of the battle that were stamped on his memory.
The officer that called them mule drivers rides up, looking wild. He begins yelling at the head of the regiment. According to this man, the troops ruined a successful charge by stopping short of the line about one hundred feet. The men listen to the harsh words for their commander, a colonel, who seems injured by this assessment. He tries to defend the men, saying they went as far as they could. The officer says it was not enough; the charge as an intended diversion was a failure. After the officer rides away, the lieutenant says that he is a fool for thinking they did not fight hard in the field. The colonel tells him that it is his own affair, and he did not ask for anyone else's opinion. Henry does not get mad; he chalks the outcome up to bad luck. Wilson agrees.
Several men come running up to Wilson and Henry. One begins speaking in an excited voice about a conversation he heard between the young lieutenant and the colonel of the regiment. The colonel asked, according to this soldier, who was carrying the flag, to which the lieutenant replies that it was Fleming. Also, the soldier adds, the lieutenant mentioned Wilson as being at the head of the charge, howling loudly. The colonel saw them in the distance, apparently, and called them "babies" to which the lieutenant replied, "they should be major generals."
Henry and Wilson think the soldier is fooling them, but in their hearts they are proud and happy. They do not think of their old mistakes. The past no longer holds disappointment.
As the next phase of the battle begins, Henry is still in command of the flag. He stands erect and tranquil, his vision unaffected by the smoke from the rifles. In the distance, two regiments of one army fight two regiments of the other. They are engrossed in their own fights, not noticing the rest of the war around them. In another direction, a brigade tries to drive the enemy from a grove. They disappear into the trees, from which comes an incredible racket of guns. Soon, the brigade comes marching calmly back out of the trees. Cannons go off with a crimson flare.
The battle of the four regiments lasts for some time. Their flags flutter in the air. Then there is a silence all around. The blue lines of the Union army shift and change slightly. Except for a distant cannon, it is very still.
Suddenly, the guns on the slope behind the regiment roar out. Muskets resound from in front. The din rises, sounding like enormous machinery. Henry can see the battle continuing on another front, with the two lines, blue and gray, swaying back and forth against each other. Places of cover, such as trees and fences, are fought over as if they were precious gems. He cannot tell which side is winning.
When its time comes, the regiment bursts forward with fierceness. As bullets hit them, they cry out in rage. Their front is a wall of smoke lit with yellow and red flashes. The faces of the men are smudges of powder and fogged with smoke.
The lieutenant, arm bandaged, still swears loudly at the men. The youth stands with the colors, absorbed in the battle as a spectator. It makes him babble occasionally, words coming unconsciously.
Then a line of the enemy begins to advance very close to them. The regiment simultaneously fires at them without waiting to be ordered. The Rebels are behind a fence, which covers them from the attack. They rise and shoot into the regiment. The smoke wafts through the Union soldiers' line. The Rebels yell taunts and gibes, while the men in blue remain silent, intent on keeping the ground they have gained.
Henry has resolved not to budge from his place. It is clear to him that his final revenge will be his dead body upon the field. The regiment bleeds profusely. Men are falling rapidly. Henry goes rearward. In the fray, he can make out his friend through the confusion. The regiment's fire is beginning to fade.
The officers from behind the line run up to the regiment, yelling that they must charge. Upon hearing this, the youth makes some rough calculations of the distance between them and the enemy. He suspects that they will have to be coaxed into charging, but instead the men quickly fix their bayonets and leap forward, running in a fever of haste. Henry keeps the colors up near the front, waving and shrieking. Henry does not question or reflect. He merely goes forward with savageness and speed.
Up ahead, he sees a fence, which he is sure hides the bodies of the men in gray. He expects to hear a great concussion when the two groups collide. However, this does not happen. The men in gray begin to turn and run. One part of the line, however, stands firm. Their flag waves over them and their rifles.
Henry fixes on the sight of the enemy flag. Capturing it would fill him with pride, and he races toward it, swearing to himself that it will not escape. The Union army stops, fires, and keeps running at the Rebels. Through the haze, Henry can make out four or five men stretched out on the ground, with their color sergeant tottering over them. He has obviously been hit and is fighting to stay upright. His wounds make him stumble.
The youth's friend, Wilson, jumps at the enemy flag like a panther and wrenches it free from the dead man, who falls on the grass, bleeding. The men yell and wave in ecstasy. They have won.
Four men in gray sit as prisoners. One is nursing a wound on his foot. It is not very serious, but he guards it carefully and swears frequently. Another, who looks very young, is taking the capture in stride, conversing lightly with the men in blue. The third sits stonily, replying to any attempt to speak to him with "Ah, go to hell!" The last stays completely silent. He looks dejected and lost, perhaps thinking of what awaits him as a prisoner of war, perhaps out of shame for having been captured.
The men sit in long grass. Wilson approaches Henry, holding the enemy flag. The two congratulate each other.
The cacophony of battle grows intermittent and weak. The youth and his friend look up, almost surprised at the sudden lack of noise. Henry even asks out loud what will happen next. Eventually the regiment receives order to retrace its steps. The men get up slowly, stiff and groaning. They retrace the field they had run madly across just recently.
The regiment reforms and marches, soon joining up with other troops. They pass a house where other soldiers lay, waiting for more orders. Their march curves, giving them a view of the debris-strewn ground on which they have just fought. Henry says to his friend that it is all over.
The youth reflects again. He escaped the place of red blood and black passion. Eventually, he thinks with satisfaction and cohesion about his past actions. He can look at them like a spectator and criticize with some correctness. Now, unlike before, he is proud and confident. He feels he is good.
Then, a few ghosts from his flight from the first battle dance before him. He blushes slightly, remembering. Another phantom, this one of reproach, come to him as he remembers the tattered soldier, who was so concerned for Henry's fabricated wound and Jim Conklin's sufferings. He begins to sweat and then lets out a cry. Wilson, his friend, turns to him and asks what is wrong. The youth's reply is an outburst of violent oaths.
Whichever way his thoughts turn, they are confronted now by his memory of desertion. He looks at his companions, wondering if they can read his thoughts. Of course, they are too engrossed in discussions of the battle. For a time, Henry does not feel like he can join in. His thoughts are occupied with the tattered soldier.
Yet, he eventually puts his sin at a distance. He now looks at his past bombasts and opinions of battle and is happy that he despises them. With this comes a sort of assurance. He feels a quiet manhood, a sturdy blood. He knows that he will no longer doubt his inner guides. "He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man."
Henry leaves with his soul changed. It begins to rain, but he smiles nonetheless. He feels rid of the red sickness of battle and is ready to turn to peaceful images. A golden ray of sun comes through the clouds.
One of the great questions presented at the close of the novel is just how far Henry has come. Is he really a "man"? Is he a hero? Has he grown up, matured, attained wisdom? Critics and readers have been debating this for years without definitively arriving at an answer. That fact, of course, is what makes Crane's novel so fantastic – it provides endless fodder for debate and discussion and avoids an easy or pat conclusion.
Critics who believe Henry Fleming is now a man and understands himself and his place within the world point to several events in these final chapters to support their claim. They note that he rescued the colors in the first part of the second battle and, with Wilson, captured the Rebel flag in the second part. When his fellow troops lagged and even Wilson evinced fear and doubt, Henry rallied them and urged them on. Henry seems to understand that war is not a monster but just a fact. His actions were heroic, no matter their initial motivations.
The flag of the enemy represents not just their power as an army, but the power of battle as well. When Wilson grabs the flag and waves its "red brilliancy" in the air, he is demonstrating an end to these struggles against war and its psychological terrors. The flag with its red field is no longer waving in defiance of their actions, representing their bad luck. The men in blue now hold it. They have faced and conquered their earlier dragons. Where the color sergeant falls is described as a place where "much blood [was] upon the grass blades." While these colors still hold some of the gore and horribleness of war, the red and the green no longer represent a mythological creature. Blood and grass are real, concrete things. Henry Fleming sees them clearly without assigning poetic majesty to them. Also plainly visible are the captured Rebel soldiers, who resemble the Union soldiers in so many ways. They speak the same language as their captors and look very similar, save the color of their uniforms. They also span ages, physical conditions, and (most importantly) reactions to their present condition. All of their actions, full of self-interest, fear, and thought, are not those of phantoms or war ghosts made of smoke. They are men, just like the men in blue. It took several skirmishes and an adventure fleeing for Henry to realize this, but now he knows.
The ambiguity in his descriptions lends credence to the theory that Crane was writing this novel as a psychological study and rather than a historical examination of the Civil War. From Henry’s arc of learning to see himself, his fellow troops, and the enemy as men and not mythical or hidden creatures we can extrapolate the novel’s greater purpose – war as a maddening test of young men to confront what they cannot control. Wilson and Henry also decide their successes and failures are due to luck; there is no skill involved in racing blindly into the front. Henry comes of age when he discards pre-battle fantasies of glory and demons.
Ultimately, Henry grapples with his lies and sins but finds that he can put them behind him. He is mature and understands that those actions were from an earlier time and represent the folly of his youth. He is now "nonassertive but of sturdy and strong blood" (116). Crane may even be allowing Nature to smile down upon the young hero, as his last lines of the novel are: "Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds" (117).
Critics who argue that Fleming may have distinguished himself somewhat but has not truly changed also have an arsenal of clues from the text at their disposal. Henry's fame is built on two lies and accidents – that of his "red badge of courage" and the flight from battle that precipitated it. His acts of heroism, when they do occur, seem to arise from some unconscious, primal motivation, not from a wise or thoughtful one. His lauded charging in the skirmish where he retrieved the regiment’s flag was done so mindlessly. Henry’s final assessment of himself as a good man conveniently glosses over his misdeeds; he chooses to believe in the tales told of his bravery. Rather than accepting his mistakes and learning from them, he worries that his friends can read his thoughts. His selfishness still shines through. Henry's sense of heroism is perhaps only in his mind and is still shaped by the opinions of others. Henry has demonstrated a remarkable ability to ignore things that make him uncomfortable and to ruminate on things that make him flush with pride. It does not seem likely that in the next battle or the one after that Henry will not fall prey to the same character flaws that have plagued him thus far. Calling him a man after two battles is premature. Even in this less straightforward interpretation, Crane’s gift is made plain. The Red Badge of Courage is a novel of war, fear and humanity – in all their complicated grit and glory.