Bloody Civil War Wrapped in a 'Red Badge'

 

In Stephen Crane's short story, "The Veteran," published a year after The Red Badge of Courage, an elderly Henry Fleming reminisces about his first experiences in battle: "That was at Chancellorsville," he remembers. The veteran Henry's recollection of his reasons for flight match those of his younger namesake in The Red Badge of Courage, and he recalls with sorrow the death of Jim Conklin, the "tall soldier." "The Veteran," then, explicitly identifies the battle in Red Badge as Chancellorsville (May 1-3, 1863), one of the bloodiest struggles of the Civil War. If such fictional correspondence seems slight evidence for the claim that Red Badge is set at Chancellorsville, then we can turn to Crane's earliest biographer, Thomas Beer, who reveals that in preparation for the writing of Red Badge, Crane consulted Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (1884), a collection of memoirs by Union and Confederate officers (Beer, 97-98). Though devoid of emotion, these authoritative accounts are full of all the strategical and topographical information Crane needed to employ Chancellorsville as the setting for his novel. The paragraphs below argue that Crane used the literary and pictorial inspirations of Battles and Leaders to provide a specific factual framework for Henry's experiences in Red Badge. Thematically, Crane utilized the battle of Chancellorsville in order to mount a critique of the fin de siecle American situation: the beleaguered position of the individual in a mass society, the harmful illusions of popular notions of heroism, and the abandonment, in materialistic gestures of denial, of the program of Reconstruction begun in the Civil War.

 

Crane's interest in Chancellorsville may very well have begun at home in Port Jervis, New York. Many of the men in the 124th New York, which saw action at Chancellorsville, were from Port Jervis. No doubt Crane heard plenty of war stories as he grew up. Crane's brother, Edmund, was "an expert in the strategy of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville," and Crane no doubt consulted him during a summer of work on Red Badge (Mitchell, 16). Of equal importance to Crane's vision of war are the many illustrations in Battles and Leaders which provided him with subjects for description: the huts at the Falmouth winter camp; pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock; the Chancellor House in the center of the battlefield; and the rout of the Eleventh Corps. Although the novel itself makes no specific mention of the name of the battle which provides the setting for Henry Fleming's initiation into war, a consideration of available evidence leaves very little doubt that Red Badge takes place at Chancellorsville.

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