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.


There are only three geographical locations explicitly mentioned in Red Badge: Washington, Richmond, and the Rappahannock River. Chancellorsville, the first major engagement of 1863, was fought in Northern Virginia near the Rappahannock during the heavy rains of early spring. Chronological analysis confirms this date and location: the novel cannot be set in 1861, as the Civil War began in April of that year and the Northern army would not have spent the winter in camp; the early eastern battles of General George McClellan's Peninsular Campaign of 1862 were fought far away from the Rappahannock; though the Battle of the Wilderness was fought in 1864 near that river, it did not, unlike Chancellorsville, end in a Union defeat; and by the time the spring rains of 1865 had passed, Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. The only possible year that Red Badge can logically be set in is 1863; Chancellorsville was fought in May of that year. That the events in Red Badge happen before Gettysburg is made clear by the loud soldier's comment that thus far in the war the South had licked the North at "about every clip" (Crane, 129). No Union soldier would have made such a statement after Gettysburg.

Red Badge begins with the Union Army encamped north of the Rappahannock river. To the south can be seen the "red eyelike gleam" of Confederate campfires. The army has been in camp for some time, as the soldiers have built semi-permanent structures in which to live: soon after the "youthful private," Henry Fleming, is introduced he retreats into a structure of "log walls" with a "folded tent" for a roof and a fireplace with a clay chimney (Crane, 116-17). Henry wonders if the army will ever see action. After its glorious reception in Washington, Henry's regiment has settled down to "months of monotonous life" in what seems an "eternal camp" and done little but "sit still and try to keep warm." With the arrival of warmer weather, the soldiers are "drilled and drilled and reviewed, and drilled and drilled and reviewed" (Crane, 120). Crane's description of the situation of the Union army in Red Badge is drawn directly from that of the actual Army of the Potomac in April, 1863. The army's members had had time to build temporary cabins, having spent much of the winter encamped at Falmouth, Virginia, on the north bank of the Rappahannock River opposite the Confederate army (Hungerford, 522). With the arrival of new commanding general Joseph Hooker, the Union troops were subjected to hours of drill and review. Like many of these troops, Henry and his regiment have never seen battle before.

The "tall soldier," Jim Conklin, breaks up the monotony of long months in camp with the news that "We're goin' t' move t' morrah--sure....We' re goin' way up the river, cut across, an' come around in behint em" (Crane, 115). When other soldiers question the veracity of his account, Jim continues: "Didn't the cavalry all start this morning?....They say there ain't hardly any cavalry left in camp. They're going to Richmond, or some place, while we fight all the Johnnies. It's some dodge like that" (Crane, 122-23). Although the next morning comes and the army does not move, Jim's prediction is eventually borne out. When eleven thousand Union cavalrymen left the Falmouth camp on April 13th for a raid on the Confederate rail lines near Richmond, no doubt many soldiers jumped to the same conclusion (Hungerford, 523). But the Army of the Potomac did not in fact leave camp until two weeks after the departure of the cavalry. In Red Badge, there is a similar delay: Henry muses "for days" about whether or not he will run from a battle. And late in the book, Jim's prediction about Union strategy is confirmed in another soldier's exclamation: "Didn't I tell yeh we'd come aroun' in behint em? Didn't I tell yeh so?" (Crane, 230).


When Henry's regiment, the 304th New York, finally leaves camp, they march west and express "commiseration for that part of the army which had been left upon the river bank" (127). Campfires are lit that night; the next night the regiment crosses the river on two pontoon bridges and camps again (Crane, 131).

These troop movements mirror the march of the Second Corps of Hooker's army: while some of its divisions stayed behind to conduct a holding action against General Robert E. Lee, much of the Second Corps left Falmouth on April 28 and crossed the Rappahannock on two pontoon bridges the evening of April 30.


On May 1, 1863, General Robert E. Lee defied military convention by dividing his already numerically inferior army and sending half of his troops to intercept Hooker's flanking army. Two days after the river crossing, a date that corresponds to May 2, 1863, the first real day of fighting at Chancellorsville, Henry's regiment sees its first action.

The regiment is moved three times before lunch, eventually coming back, in the afternoon, to the same territory that they had covered that morning. After the brigade in front of them is routed and flees, Henry's regiment is called to the front and initially resists the charging enemy. But when the Confederates attack again, Henry bolts. These movements roughly, but not directly, parallel those of many regiments at Chancellorsville--many regiments of the Second Corps did first encounter the enemy in mid-afternoon (Hungerford, 524). And Henry's 304th, like many regiments of the actual Second Corps, is in the middle of the Union lines--the "cheery" soldier who later sheperds Henry back to his regiment says: "Th' 304th N'York?...they're way over there in the center."

The path of Henry's retreat from the battle is untraceable, but topographical evidence supports the hypothesis that Henry's flight took him west from the Union center toward the Eleventh Corps on the Union right. Henry crosses several streams and goes through cleared fields and dense woods; at one point he finds himself "almost into a swamp" where he has to "walk upon bog tufts, and watch his feet to keep from the oily water" (Crane, 155). Such terrain stood between the center and the Eleventh Corps' position. The scene of Jim's death, which occurs during Henry's flight from the front, is appropriate to the battle of Chancellorsville, as well. The roads leading back to the Rappahannock River were full of Union wounded during the afternoon of the first day's fighting. Many men died while they walked, as ambulances were not able to cope with the numbers of casualties.


Perhaps the most well-known event at Chancellorsville is Confederate General Thomas Johnathan "Stonewall" Jackson's rout of the Union Eleventh Corps. This action is reknowned because it most likely won the battle for Lee but also cost Jackson his life. After a daring flanking march late in the day on May 2, Jackson's troops attacked the Eleventh Corps, located on the extreme right of the Union line.

Unprepared, the Corps' soldiers panicked and fled, leaving the unprotected rear of the entire army open to a Confederate assault. But Jackson's men were confined to the road in the thickly wooded area, and a brave charge by the Eighth Pennsylvania cavalry--the only cavalry charge at Chancellorsville--was able to hold off the Confederates' advance long enough for Union artillery to be brought up and employed (Hungerford, 526).

The sun set before Jackson could renew his potentially catastrophic rear assault on the Union forces. That evening, returning from reconnoitering enemy territory, Jackson and two of his aides were shot by nervous Confederate pickets. Jackson's left arm was amputated and he later died. It is during Crane's fictional account of Jackson's routing of the Eleventh Corps that Henry receives his "red badge of courage."


Near the end of the day of Henry's flight--"landmarks had vanished into the gathered gloom"--he encounters a mass of men running from the front: "They sometimes gabbled insanely. One huge man was asking of the sky, Say, where de plank road? Where de plank road?'" (Crane, 175). Many of the Eleventh Corps' soldiers were German, and popular stereotypes held that all Germans were large, burly men; to Henry's untrained ear rapidly-spoken German might sound like "gabbling" (Hungerford, 527). When Henry stops to question one of the fleeing soldiers, the harried man hits him in the head with the butt of his rifle.

Dazed and bleeding, Henry hears the "grumble of jolted cannon" being drawn to the front: "Into the unspeakable jumble in the roadway rode a squadron of cavalry....There was a mighty altercation" (Crane, 176). Crane describes the arrival of the aforementioned Eighth Pennsylvania Cavalry, the brave detachment that thwarted Jackson's advance and prevented the rout of the Eleventh Corps from becoming a complete disaster.
Crane employs the factual framework of Chancellorsville to place Henry in the middle of that battle's most important single action. The fact that Henry receives his wound from a soldier on his own side emphasizes the fratricidal aspect of the conflict and demonstrates the Union army's disarray and vulnerability at this point of the war. At this point in the battle, the fate of the entire Eleventh Corps, and with it that of the Union, hung in the balance.


Under cover of darkness, the cheery soldier returns Henry to his regiment, where his wound is bandaged by the now softspoken loud soldier. During the next day of fighting, the men of the 304th New York are sent out "to relieve a command that had lain long in some damp trenches" (Crane, 192). Earlier in the novel Crane describes the construction of such trenches: "[The men] used stones, sticks, earth, and anything they though might turn a bullet." Some of the new men wish to stand erect and fight like duelists, but they quickly take a lesson from the veterans, who are "digging at the ground like terriers" (Crane, 136).

The regiment is withdrawn briefly before being ordered on a dangerous last-ditch charge to preserve the integrity of the Union lines. On May 3, as Jackson's men fought to rejoin the main body of Lee's army, Gen. Hooker had ordered a Union retreat, but then sent the 124th New York regiment--a group comprised of men from Port Jervis, Crane's hometown--on a charge against the enemy (Hungerford, 528). The location of this episode--about a quarter-mile south of Fairview--is rendered with almost photographic accuracy; Crane describes a "slope on the left" of Henry from which a row of guns fired at the Confederates. In the rear of the cannons "stood a house, calm and white, amid bursting shells . A congregation of horses, tied to a railing, were tugging frenziedly at their bridles. Men were running hither and thither" (Crane, 219-20). Crane depicts the Chancellor House, which served as headquarters for Hooker and the other Union generals--their horses and orderlies were no doubt attempting to run for cover.


The final charge of Henry's regiment has possible parallels to a charge made by several regiments of the Second Corps later in the morning on May 3. The charge was an effort to give the bulk of the army time to withdraw the cannons from the hilltop and begin the general retreat. Crane describes the conditions of the retreat: "It rained. The procession of weary soldiers became a bedraggled train, despondent and muttering, marching with churning effort in a trough of liquid brown mud under a low, wretched sky" (Crane, 231). The beginning of this retreat from battle marks the end of Red Badge, but for the Union Army at Chancellorsville the rains continued, preventing for two days attempts to cross the Rappahannock. The Union had reached its lowest point, in war and in spirit, a point which should be kept in mind when considering Crane's portrait of Henry at the conclusion of the novel. The concluding paragraphs of Red Badge might be said to accurately describe the physical and spiritual "state of the Union" after Chancellorsville.


The question remains: why did Crane avoid specifically naming Chancellorsville in Red Badge? The easiest answer is that none of the characters in the novel--certainly not lowly privates like Henry Fleming--would have known that the battle they were fighting in was to be called Chancellorsville. Civil War reports and memoirs reveal that the men fighting the war very seldom knew where they were, as they often fought on unfamiliar territory and had infrequent communication with field commanders. (As in Red Badge, the regiments often knew only rumors.) Another reason for the battle's anonymity is that Crane was not interested in providing a panoramic, "band-box" view of war (as in Tolstoy and Zola) or a highly detailed, abstract accounting after the fashion of the generals who contributed to Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. The decision to avoid naming the battle was at least partly a technical one: doing so might have loosened Crane's authorial control, as the word "Chancellorsville" might conjure up memories and reactions unrelated to the experience of reading Red Badge. It is important for the reader to know that Red Badge takes place at Chancellorsville, but it is not realistic that Henry should realize this.

Crane's power as a writer is evident in his skilfull employment of the facts of Chancellorsville for his own fictional purposes, and there are of course some very important thematic reasons for Crane's use of this particular battle. Chancellorsville was the first battle of 1863, as well as the first combat experience for many of the green Union recruits. Henry and his regiment are similarly untried, and much of the novel's drama comes from their speculation and introspection about how they will hold up under fire. Heroic Confederate actions at Chancellorsville went only to prolong a losing cause. The Northern generals proved (again) that it was possible to considerably outnumber one's enemy and still lose the battle. Crane uses this pyrrhic bloodbath to argue for the replacement of the "martial ideal" of individual heroism in favor of a more communitarian code--one which would give place to the forgotten Negro teamster who interests the soldiers briefly at the outset of the novel but "sits mournfully down" after their interest shifts to feats of battle. Crane's indictment of an America which has reneged on Reconstruction is subtle but unmistakable. For when Chancellorsville was over, twenty-seven thousand men were dead but both sides were more or less where they were when it began (Mitchell, 17). Red Badge conveys a similarly pyrrhic sense of victory: the Union forces retreat from the field in a downpour, crossing the river to end up where they had begun.

Setting, of course, does not a novel make--there remains to discuss the significance of Crane's style. Though he wrote Red Badge with a definite battle in mind, Crane kept the proper names of places and people almost completely out of his narrative in order to focus unrelentingly on an unseasoned private's emotional responses to the dreadful corpse-producing machine of war--images matter in Red Badge, not names. Recall what Harold Frederic located as a defining quality of Crane's prose: its ability to yield a "photographic revelation;" remember, too, that George Wyndham suggested that Crane's depiction of war admits the reader "as to a theatre." Building on the above assertion that Crane utilized illustrations from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War in his effort to "image" the war, the concluding section of this project, "Imaging the Civil War: Authenticity in Painting, Photography and The Red Badge of Courage," speculates about the influence on the novel of several other popular visual representations of the Civil War, images which persisted in the public imagination.

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Critical Reception: Early Reviews | The Battle: Chancellorsville
Imaging the Civil War: Authenticity in Painting, Photography, and The Red Badge of Courage | Bibliography