The Red Badge of Courage
© 1895 Stephen Crane
Stephen Crane practically introduced Civil War historical fiction, writing this tale set during a war that was ended six years before his birth. The Red Badge of Courage is the account of a young soldier’s baptism by fire when he eagerly joins Lincoln’s war against the south, wondering — as the day of battle draws near, caught in the grips of nervous anticipation — if he can really pull it off. Will he be a daring soldier, or cower in the face of the enemy? He seems to survive his first brush with the southerners, but when they launch a second attack, an unexpected one, his inner reserve melts, and he flees the line for the safety of the wilderness. There he encounters the dead and dying, sees a friend fall before his very eyes, and responds by ashamedly returning to his regiment, where he distinguishes himself in action against the enemy, losing himself to a kind of battle madness. Crane’s tale combines vivid descriptions of the landscape and battle — the literary depiction of the enemy’s fires reflected in a dark river at night is especially haunting — with inane and repetitive dialogue. It is a pity Crane didn’t live long to refine his craft.