The Red Badge of Courage

The Red Badge of Courage Summary and Analysis of Chapters 17-20


Chapter 17

The youth fumes at the approaching enemy. He feels that he deserves a bit of rest and reflection from the trials and tribulations of the day before. The other men do not seem to need this, though, and their energy seems endless. He hates them today, as opposed to the day before, when he fumed against the war gods. Now he rages against the enemy's army.

He says to his friend that if they continue to chase, they better watch out. Wilson calmly replies that if they keep chasing, they will end up in the river. This makes Henry yell out. He crouches behind a small tree, looking the part of a wild soldier. He wants his rifle to be a destructive power, annihilating the other army who he feels is mocking him and his fellow soldiers for being puny.

A shot is fired from the Union side and soon the entire regiment blazes at the enemy. As they fire, the youth feels that the fighters are at bay, but pushing back. The enemy, however, evades the bullets sent in their direction. He feels that his rifle is an impotent stick. He loses everything but his hate. He is soon no longer aware that he stands on his feet. He loses balance, but then quickly stands again. The smoke broils his skin. His rifle barrel grows hotter and hotter, and he continues to stuff it with cartridges. Even after the enemy falls back, and the rest of the regiment has stopped shooting, he continues fighting his foe.

He is brought back to the present moment when a soldier laughs at him. He turns and sees the blue line staring at him with astonishment. The lieutenant is overjoyed. He congratulates the troops for their fighting, and Henry in particular. Wilson comes over and asks if anything is wrong with the youth. He replies, though his throat hurts, that nothing is wrong.

Henry thinks of his actions and realizes that he has fought like a barbarian. Previous obstacles no longer seemed to be looming. He was a hero.

Chapter 18

There is a brief rest after the battle, but the noises of cannons and guns soon resound in the forest again. One soldier has been shot through the body. The men rush to his attention. He lies twisting and thrashing about in the grass, yelling curses at the men standing there. Wilson, the friend, uses this occasion to go for some water and collects canteens from many men. Henry tags along.

Not finding the stream, they turn back. From this location, they can see more of the battle. Their own troops are getting into formation. The sunlight twinkles off their steel. Near where they stand, bullets whiz by sporadically.

Looking down an aisle of trees, the youth and his friend see a general with his staff ride up past a wounded man crawling on his hands and knees. Soon the officers are directly in front of the two soldiers. The general speaks of the Rebel army amassing for another charge and how he fears it may break their lines. Henry and Wilson, unseen, hear the general ask if any troops could be spared. One officer volunteers their regiment, calling them "mule drivers." The general tells him to get them ready, adding that many of them will not get back.

The two foot soldiers hurry back to their line. The combination of the recognition of their feats and their seeming expendability wears on Henry's mind. They tell the men of their regiment that they are about to charge. There are some protestations, but most of the men believe them. They are soon engrossed in thoughts about the charge. Officers soon come and put the men in tighter formation. The regiment draws a new breath. They are full of energy, like a sprinter in the starting blocks.

The noises of battle go up around them. Wilson and Henry exchange looks. They are the only ones who have heard that they are disposable and not expected to survive in great number. One man seems to realize this, though, and muses out loud, "We'll git swallowed."

Chapter 19

The men stand in formation. With a gasp that is intended to be a cheer, the regiment starts running at the enemy troops. Henry fixes on a distant clump of trees and runs toward it as if toward a goal. His face is drawn tight, and his features look disheveled and crazed. Yellow flames leap out of the forest at the advancing soldiers. The line lurches, its parts staggering ahead of each other as the troops all run. Without realizing it, Henry takes the lead. Bullets fly all around. Shells scream overhead. Men, hit by flying metal, fall in agony.

As the men run, the features of the enemy become clear. They can see a battery and the men working at it. The enemy infantry are still concealed by gray walls and smoke. The scene seems hyper-real to Henry. He sees the bold green of the grass and the features of the brown and gray trees. His mind makes an impression of everything, except the reasons why he is there.

The men break into cheers as they run. They are in a blind frenzy to forestall despair and death. The breakneck pace eats up their energy and they stall. They begin to calculate and become self-aware once more. The moment the men stop, the musketry in front becomes a roar. Yellow flames cause inhuman whistling in the air. Some fall dead and others simply stand. They appear dazed and stupid.

Their lieutenant curses and yells at them to keep going. Wilson, the friend, drops to his knees and fires a shot at the enemy. This awakens the men, who begin firing anew. They now move in small jerks, going forward a few steps, then stopping to reload and fire again. The shots against them keep coming. The smoke is so intense that it makes it difficult for the regiment to go forward with intelligence.

The men stop behind trees, dumbstruck. It is as if some other force is driving them. As soon as they stop, the lieutenant is on them again, cursing and swearing for them to go on. He grabs Henry to drag him towards the line. The youth lashes out at his commander, saying, "Come on yerself, then."

Three men in front of the flag begin to yell to move. The flag sways proudly in the breeze. With a lunge, the men go forward and over the small field. They run and duck as they go. As he runs, Henry is filled with a fondness for the flag, marveling at its beauty and invulnerability. Because it still swayed proudly, he endows the flag with power. In the rush, the color sergeant is hit. He sways where he stands. Both Henry and Wilson jump for the flagpole. The dead man will not let go, still doing his job. Soon the two have wrenched the flag from the corpse's control.

Chapter 20

The men begin to slowly retreat. The lieutenant bellows at them to turn around. Another officer with a red beard yells at the soldiers to shoot into the enemy. Meanwhile, Wilson and Henry have a minor scuffle over who should carry the flag, both wanting to do so out of deference for the other's safety and their own pride. The youth pushes his friend away.

The regiment falls back to some trees and soon resumes its path amongst the trunks. Their numbers are depleted and they are receiving heavy fire. Most of them act discouraged, receiving the bullets like a deserved sentence. They feel as if they have tried to conquer an unconquerable thing. The rear of the regiment is still firing the occasional bullet at the enemy lines. The lieutenant has been hit in the arm; this makes him swear even louder.

The youth feels anger at the officer that called his regiment mule drivers. He hates the enemy, but hates the man who called them mule drivers even more. Despite all this, Henry keeps the flag erect. He yells at his fellows, but the regiment is running out of energy quickly. The smoke clears slightly, and he sees the enemy troops amassed across the way. They yell at once and fire a rallying shot at the regiment. The way in front seems eternal. Dismay descends on the men in a clouded haze. They begin to panic. Henry stays solid and strong with the flag. One soldier even approaches Henry to say goodbye.

The lieutenant, leaning on his sword like a cane, looks as if he feels all is lost. The smoke curls lazily as men hide from bullets. Suddenly, the lieutenant sees that the Rebels are attempting to sneak up on the regiment. The troops fire a quick volley at the approaching foes. Their uniforms were gray and looked new. They were not expecting the resistance that met them. The two groups of soldiers exchange volleys like boxers exchange blows. By ducking and dodging, Henry has glimpses of these men through the smoke.

Eventually, less resistance is offered and the troops stop firing. As the smoke clears, they see the ground in front of them, clear of fighters save for some corpses. The regiment had revenged themselves. They feel full of pride, trusting their weapons. "And they were men."


Though still "the youth," Henry has changed from the day before. At the beginning of the fight that day, he is no longer thinking of the metaphoric monsters and war gods that threaten to eat him up. There is no large metaphor that he gives flesh and life –there is only an opposing army, coming at him in his position with an energy he does not feel and cannot understand. This fills him with rage instead of fear. While he thinks of the enemy as beasts having "teeth and claws" and being "flies sucking insolently at his blood," they are still basically men. This is an important change from the day before. Given that the force he faces is of men and not mythical beasts, Henry is more likely to actually be brave. However, at first, his actions in battle were done without thought, consideration, or care. His heroism, if there was any in his actions, was accidental. Only when the lieutenant praises him does Henry begin to take pride in himself; he becomes a symbol of ferocity. Interestingly, this makes the youth fanatical, "a barbarian," and “a knight.”

These chapters highlight the difference between the foot soldiers of the novel and the men who inhabit the upper command. Throughout the story there have been occasional complaints from the troops about the general's lack of ability. It is true historically that in the Civil War, the Union army suffered from poor leadership in its upper ranks throughout much of the war. This fact, however, is not crucial for Crane's story. What is important is that the commanders do not see the men as individuals, but as a fighting force.

The general and his staff almost crush a wounded man when riding along in the forest. They are oblivious to the suffering of this individual soldier and of individual soldiers in general. Their words are quotidian, not heroic. They are solidly technical and evaluative. Glory does not come easily even to a general. The general's words are a completely different way to look at the battle, separated from Henry by age, experience, and social class. There are few illusions held about the war. Henry, who has been obsessed with war glory since before his time in the army, waits for some grandiose language from these men. Instead, he learns that the attack they are about to commit to will likely kill many of the men. Henry’s regiment is referred to as mules and brooms, tools to be employed and not men. The contradiction of this statement strikes Henry as odd and the dehumanization – that he is beginning to rise above – upsets him greatly.

The doomed battle is strikingly rendered in gritty detail. Again, rather than a show of glory, the fighting is fraught with venal human emotions and utter confusion. The men become caught in between bravery and cowardice, reduced to inactivity. The lieutenant, who cares more for the success of the regiment than the individuals, presses the men to keep charging and fighting, rather than flee to safety. Yet soon his actions are reduced too, he only able to curse at his troops and tug at them to charge. Meanwhile the smoke of battle becomes so thick that the men do not know where to go. This adds to their general confusion, not just in the plot but also as a metaphor. They stop, illogically, in the middle of the battlefield because of it. However, Henry knows that on the other side, beyond this smoke of mystery, lay men of an opposing army. He must get through the smoke to see them and end his mythologizing of war.

What breaks Henry from his lethargy is the vision of his regiment’s flag. He latches on to the red and the white of war and power. The flag does not falter. His actions become slightly clearer, his energies more directed. He leaps for the flag. While it makes him more of a target, he also is attempting to master "the colors." If he can handle the red and the white of the flag, he will finally master his experience of war. The flag is an important symbol for the troops, encapsulating what the young men are giving their lives for – freedom, country, and honor. As they lose their grasp on the direct motivation, they reach instead for the abstract, but powerful notion of brotherhood.

Henry gains a sense of strength and pride while all of the other troops begin to falter. Throughout this part of the altercation, Henry can see the features of the enemy troops. They are no longer a strange force; they are actually men. In fact, they resemble his young regiment; their uniforms seem new, just like his was at the beginning of the novel. The mysteries of war are dissipating even more. He can see occasionally through the clouds of smoke and see that his foe is merely other men.

The narrator adds at the end that now, the regiment "were men." This is the crucial moment of the chapter. As a coming of age novel, the experience of this battle, where they saw and conquered their enemy, is the moment of maturity for the regiment. However, their trials are not over.