"[Henry's] mind took a mechanical but firm impression, so that afterward everything was pictured and explained to him, save why he himself was there."

--The Red Badge of Courage, 206.


Early reviewers speculating about possible influences on The Red Badge of Courage usually mentioned European realist novelists like Tolstoi, Zola, and Kipling. Subsequent analyses, including the previous section of this project, have suggested that Crane drew on both literary and pictorial sources in the writing of Red Badge: he consulted Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (1884), a collection of Union and Confederate officers' memoirs which included many illustrations based on wartime sketches and photographs. But Crane's debt to the style and subject matter of visual representations of the Civil War by American artists--photographs by Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and Timothy H. O' Sullivan; paintings by Winslow Homer and others--has gone largely unremarked. Many scenes in Red Badge reinforce and/or re-interpret the persistence and place of these representations in the popular imagination about the war. Crane's "battle pictures" of the Civil War debunk the narrative strategies of popular fiction of his day--chivalric historical romances, popular war novels with domestic subplots, veterans' martial memoirs. With a minimum of a linking narrative, Crane's vivid images of Henry's initiation into war question assumptions about the War's significance which prevailed in the Gilded Age.

Red Badge is only one instance of the rhetoric of the decade which recalled Americans to the "heroism of the civil War generation" (Lears, 113). Red Badge appeared in a time when fraternal meetings between Blue and Gray veterans celebrated each others' heroics and reinterpreted Civil War battles as a way to transcend conflict rather than discuss politics. Postreconstruction period military histories and domestic fiction "excised political conflict from the collective memory of the war" (Kaplan, 1986, 80). Social conflict--urban unrest, labor strikes--could be temporarily submerged in the veterans' rhetoric of national unity. Internal conflicts were rewritten as a celebration of mutual American manhood and then refocused on imperialistic external conflict--the Philippines, the Spanish-American War, etc. Contemporaneous with these trends was a resurgence in the popularity of Scott-style historical romances and war novels. Red Badge reveals the ways in which these recontextualizations of the Civil War are unsatisfactory.


Crane parodies the popular chivalric romances of his day in his early portrait of Jim Conklin. The tall soldier "develops virtues" and goes to "wash a shirt," waving it as if he were "a herald in red and gold" (Crane, 113). This description parodies the "martial spirit" so popular in the rhetoric of the jingoists and in Teddy Roosevelt's notion of the "strenuous life." According to T. J. Jackson Lears, the martial ideal emerged in 1890s America as a popular antidote to enervated refinement, a premodern alternative to lackluster industrial man: "In the excitement of postwar economic expansion, it seemed to many that commercial necessity had rendered the martial virtues obsolete...nearly all agreed that modern civilized man was rational, self-controlled, and anxious to avoid violence" (Lears, 100). This amounts to a paraphrase of Henry Fleming's early musings about battle: "Greeklike struggles would be no more. Men were better, or more timid. Secular and religious education had effaced the throat-grappling instinct, or else firm finance held in check the passions" (Crane, 120). Henry, like so many men in the 1890s, wondered about the passing of opportunities for masculine assertions and worried that the days of martial glory were over.

Martial Ideal
The Southern cultivation of the "Lost Cause" fed into the chivalric notions of what Lears calls the "martial ideal." "The Last Meeting between Lee and Jackson"--at Chancellorsville, the site of Red Badge--is one of the central icons of the Lost Cause, displaying the two demigods of the Confederate army in conference about how best to wrest glory from the battlefield. The descriptions of generals in Red Badge emphasize their quasi-divine status. They are far removed from the fray; they hold conferences in which they denounce the common troops; Henry passionately resents them and thinks them unable to understand him. Nonetheless, he aspires to martial greatness. After his initial secession from the regiment and withdrawal into self-analysis, Henry rejoins and fights like a "war devil." Throwing himself into the regiment's struggle against the enemy, he feels a "sublime moment of selflessness" but is unable to rid himself of the memory of his earlier desertions (of the regiment and the tattered soldier). Lears: "Reacting against therapeutic self-absorption, the cult of martial experience proved unable to transcend it" (Lears, 138). This seems to be Henry's experience, as well. Red Badge may celebrate combat to a point, but it does not uncritically participate in the militaristic national cheerleading that was commonplace in the late 1890s.

Domestic Subplots

Many of the Civil War novels of the 1880s and 1890s included domestic subplots in which sectional differences were reconciled through marriage between houses (the Union officer marries the Southern belle). Popular paintings like "The Consecration" depicted the soldier and his faithful lover: they say goodbye as he leaves for war, kissing symbols of one another's sex. Crane appears interested in this idea when he introduces the dark-haired maiden who looks longingly after Henry as he leaves for war (Crane, 120). But she is abruptly dropped; this is the last readers see of her. Crane abandons the domestic subplot to emphasize that there is to be no joining of the houses in Red Badge, no easy reconciliation.

Veterans' Tales

Crane's revolt against the domestic realism of his precursors--the aristocratic refinement of James and Howells--and the easy answers of popular fiction is rooted in his own apprehension about the crisis of cultural authority. Early on, Henry Fleming expresses doubts about the veracity of veterans' accounts of the enemy: "[H]e could not put a whole faith in veterans' tales, for recruits were their prey. They talked much of smoke, fire, and blood, but he could not tell how much might be lies. They persistently yelled, Fresh fish!' at him , and were in no wise to be trusted" (Crane, 121). Henry questions the power of historical authority--the words of the veterans--to assure continuity into the present. War stories often obscure as much as they reveal, Crane suggests, in what must be seen as a commentary on the contemporary phenomenon of Confederate and Union veterans getting together to re-interpret the war as glorious testimony to their mutual manhood.

Fraught with the opposed tensions of economic incorporation and increasing social diversity, art in the antebellum age often revealed the ways in which personal identity and political unity were at cross purposes. The Civil War radicalized such concerns and caused individual Americans to wonder what, if anything, could be said to continue to attach to the term 'American character' or even 'American nation.' With traditional religion weakened and antebellum notions of superintending Providence discredited, what remained to organize and give meaning to individual and national actions? Such questions were exacerbated by the change from entrepreneurial to corporate capitalism in late-19th century America. For Crane, at least, the Civil War became a metaphor for the individual's experience in the age of incorporation and mass society. Jackson Lears suggests that these years saw "a shift from a Protestant to a therapeutic orientation within the dominant culture" (Lears, xiv). This "therapeutic orientation" included the fin de siecle yearning for authentic individual experience--physical, emotional, or spiritual. Red Badge is about Henry's search for such experience, for "the real thing."


Commenting on Red Badge's reliance on previous visual representations of reality, Miles Orvell suggests that Crane's work often raises the question: "How do we learn to see?" (Orvell, 127). For Henry James and W. D. Howells, the artist's studio and the editor's desk were the class-bound shops in which the realist's artful illusions were fabricated. Crane's journalistic approach took him out of the studio and into the streets in an effort to comprehend the relation between diverse sections of an increasingly heterogeneous American society--witness the slum life of Maggie and "An Experiment in Misery," the beleaguered individuality of Red Badge's provincial private. Crane's fiction concerns itself with the "democratization of literary representation" and the "struggle to forge bonds between members of antagonistic social classes" (Kaplan, 1988, 22). Crane put the project succintly: "Culture, in its true sense, I take it," he wrote in an 1895 letter to a friend, "is a comprehension of the man at one's shoulder" (Delbanco, 49). The pursuit of such inter-class comprehension separates Crane's fiction from that of James and Howells and informs his attempt to find an authentic alternative to the dangerous self-deception and facile transcendence of the popular fictions of his day.


The advent of the daguerrotype in 1839 and its subsequent popularity in the United States radically modified the notion of "the real" in representation, and irrevocably changed ideas about what constituted "history" and "literature." Pictures were thought to be truthful to reality in a way that language could never be. The camera's truth-telling capacities were celebrated as a significant step toward the apprehension of things as they really existed. Photographs offered individual vividness as a substitute for a clear, shared understanding of some "larger" reality. As implied in Harold Frederic's review, Red Badge is a series of 'imaged' moments tenuously linked by narrative, a presentation of 'history' in the manner of Eadward Muybridge's photographic exhibit. In battle, Henry's mind takes a "mechanical but firm impression" so that afterward everything is "pictured and explained to him, save why he himself was there" (Crane, 206). The "battle pictures" are vivid, but discontinuous, leaving Henry--and the reader--uncertain about how (and if) the succession of impressions relate to one another. This has been a problem for readers of Red Badge from its appearance; General McClurg groused that the novel lacked both plot and character development (Crane had "absolutely no story," he concluded).Crane's battlefield prose frustrated (and exhilarated) readers because of its refusal to conform to generic expectations. One of the reasons for this is Crane's debt to visual artists rather than literary precursors.


Many similarities unite Crane's novel with visual representations of the Civil War by American artists. Subjects in the work of Crane, Brady, and Homer often appear unadorned, unexceptional, anonymous--Henry Fleming, who thinks himself only part of a "vast blue demonstration;" Brady's unidentified Union and Confederate dead; Homer's isolated sharpshooter and his solitary, anonymous "veteran in a new field." The selection of the Civil War as subject for their work ties Brady, Crane, and Homer together in other important ways: as chroniclers of fratricidal strife and social unrest; as critics of an increasingly impersonal mass society; and as explorers who attempt to portray an authentic, shared "reality." Crane's language in Red Badge looks for an originary force behind the war, behind the actions of individuals, behind life and death. It describes the world in various ways but never claims to correspond to 'reality': illusions are created and destroyed and reborn; colors, surfaces, and vivid impressions all stand in for self-knowledge (and, perhaps more significantly, knowledge of what is shared with others). Henry Fleming's moral predicament is that he needs to connect his body's battle experience with the heroic ethos he has absorbed from storybooks and pictures.

Early photographic exhibits recognized the problems of trying to tell a story with images. Alexander Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the Civil War (1866) was accompanied by an organizing narrative which aimed to ensure that the images, so powerful in and of themselves, would be interpreted by viewers in the right way. Individual images could be isolated, discontinuous and misleading; they needed an encompassing structure--the program's text--to give them status as segments in an unfolding epic event. Orvell points out that Gardner "played on his audience's belief in the veracity of the medium while taking for himself a much more flexible view of photographic practice," one in which "the manipulations of the photographer were permissible in the interest of achieveing a rhetorically convincing effect" (Orvell, 96). As Trachtenberg sees it, the central motive of Gardner's Sketch Book is the transformation of scenes of war into sacred memories, into monuments. Red Badge, by contrast, does not aim to transform scenes of war into sacred memories; it uses them to invoke past traumas which have been submerged in the national consciousness, to remind readers of personal and social responsibilities left unfulfilled.


At the beginning of the novel, Crane dramatizes the abandonment of the issue of emancipation as a central concern of the war: "A negro teamster who had been dancing upon a cracker box with the hilarious encouragement of two-score soldiers was deserted. He sat mournfully down" (Crane, 115). Although Crane explores the complex symbolic qualities of blackness throughout the rest of the novel, he never again mentions the issue of slavery or speaks of the Civil War as a struggle for emancipation of the slaves. Except for a minority of abolitionists, Northern leaders deferred as long as possible facing or even naming slavery as a factor in the Civil War, let alone race hatred and doctrines of inferiority. The paucity of blacks in the photographic record of the war, their appearance on the margin of scenes, "parallels their status within the mental pictures that screened the mind from the full social and political facts of the war" (Trachtenberg, 80).

The photograph "Burial Party, Cold Harbor, Va." exemplifies what Alan Trachtenberg terms the "dual repressions" of the war: the issues of race and violent, undignified death. It is to Crane's moral credit that he spares neither of these subjects in Red Badge, that he chooses instead to interrupt the materialistic gestures of denial of his Gilded Age readers with a reminder that the Civil War was fought for emancipation. As Ralph Ellison has written, the nation's reneging on Reconstruction might be thought of as the "continuation of the Civil War by means other than arms" (Ellison, 67). Crane reminds his readers that America has turned away from those it promised to help.


The depiction of the casualties of war in Red Badge owe obvious debts to popular photographs of the Civil War by Brady, Gardner, Alexander Russell, and Timothy H. O' Sullivan. The description of the aftermath of the Union Eleventh Corps' retreat calls to mind an Alexander Russell photograph of the carnage at Marye's Heights, Chancellorsville: "The little narrow roadway now lay lifeless. There were over-turned wagons like sun-dried boulders. The bed of the former torrent was choked with the bodies of horses and splintered parts of war machines" (Crane, 177).

Civil War photographs challenged popular cultural conceptions long in place: they portrayed not heroic action in a grand style but instead a collection of dirty, disheveled soldiers and rotting corpses--boredom and death rather than chivalric grandeur and heroic invincibility. Such visual representations exert considerable influence on Crane's portrayal of war in Red Badge.
"The Dead at Antietam" and "Harvest of Death" are perhaps the two most famous visual representations of casualties from the fighting. Here is Henry's first encounter with a dead soldier:

He lay upon his back staring at the sky. He was dressed in an awkward suit of yellowish brown. The youth could see that the soles of his shoes had been worn to the thinness of writing paper, and from a great rent in one the dead foot projected piteously. And it was as if fate had betrayed the soldier. In death it exposed to his enemies that poverty which in life he had perhaps concealed from his friends.

The ranks opened covertly to avoid the corpse. The invulnerable dead man forced a way for himself. The yough looked keenly at the ashen face. The wind raised the tawny beard. It moved as if a hand were stroking it. He vaguely desired to walk around and around the body and stare; the impulse of the living to try to read in dead eyes the answer to the Question. (Crane, 134).

Henry wants answers, as did Crane and his readers. The Civil War was an event of considerable magnitude and purpose, a subject of incredible depth for artists, one which needed desperately to be explained, if not actually justified. After all, no one could even agree on the causes of the war, on its meaning as a political and moral event: four years of brutal fighting, half a million casualties, devastation of land and cities: was it fratricidal conflict,' rebellion spawned in conspiracy, holy crusade, struggle between two nations? The following passage calls to mind Mathew Brady's photo of the dead of Antietam:

Under foot there were a few ghastly forms motionless. They lay twisted in fantastic contortions. Arms were bent and heads were turned in incredible ways. It seemed that the dead men must have fallen from some great height to get into such positions. They looked to be dumped out upon the ground from the sky. (Crane, 146).

In his flight from the fighting, Henry enters a clearing, a cathedral-esque place filled with a "religious half light." Here he discovers the decaying corpse of a Union soldier.

He was being looked at by a dead man who was seated with his back against a columnlike tree. The corpse was dressed in a uniform that once had been blue, but was now faded to a melancholy shade of green. The eyes, staring at the youth, had changed to the dull hue to be seen on the side of a dead fish. The mouth was open. Its red had changed to an appalling yellow. Over the gray skin of the face ran little ants. One was trundling some sort of a bundle along the upper lip.

The youth gave a shriek as he confronted the thing. He was for moment sturned to stone before it. He remained staring into the liquid-looking eyes. The dead man and the living man exchanged a long look. (Crane, 156)

This "look" might be analagous to Crane's own initial exposure to the Civil War dead in photographs like those of Brady and O' Sullivan. When Henry finally breaks the hold of the dead man's gaze, he runs away, "pursued by a sight of the black ants swarming greedily upon the gray face and venturing horribly near to the eyes." This sight horrifies Henry because it threatens his ability to observe the war. His spectatorship depends on his vision, which, given his desertion of his regiment, is all he has left.


It should be clear by now that the depictions of the dead in Red Badge owe much to Civil War photographs. Ultimately, however, Crane is more interested in the significance of the wounded. The bleeding, addled aspect of the "tattered soldier," the grimly realistic rendering of Jim Conklin's death, and of course Henry's own "red badge"--these are the physical evidence of the war's spiritual and ideological struggles. Writing about the medical photograph albums of wounded soldiers, Trachtenberg suggests that: "[T]he living wounded body is the final untellable legend" (Trachtenberg, 116). Red Badge concludes with a similar sense of the inscrutability of wounds: Henry Fleming's red badge masks the secret with which he must live at the conclusion of the war, a reminder of his desertion of the tattered soldier and the death of Jim Conklin. In a later work, "The Monster," Crane relates the story of Henry Johnson (it is interesting that this character shares Fleming's name), a horribly disfigured ex-slave who suffers prejudice in a post-bellum Northern town. Henry's wound and his outcast status invoke the horror of racial violence and the abandonment of emancipation efforts in the United States. Henry Fleming's red badge of courage is a symbol of the knowledge which keeps him distant from his fellow soldiers. Despite his re-integration into the regiment in the fighting which concludes the novel, Henry remains isolated, an individual in precarious, antagonistic relation to those around him.


Henry Fleming could be based onstand in for almost any of the Union soldiers that are the subjects of Winslow Homer's Civil War paintings. Three decades before Crane came to international recognition for Red Badge, Homer had established himself on the art scene with his revolutionary representations--illustrations for Harper's Weekly--of the Civil War. "The Sharpshooter," one of his first paintings of the war, portrays a solitary soldier seated in the crook of a tree branch, sighting a target out of the view of the observer. Isolated, the shooter appears vulnerable, open to a shot from an enemy sniper. Homer's painting is testimony to his apprehension of the modernity of the war: the lone sharpshooter, armed with his extremely accurate modern rifle, replaces the vast Napoleonic cavalry charges of previous battlefield paintings. Homer himself found that, measuring by traditional standards of gallantry, the sharpshooter's impersonal death-dealing was "butchery" (Cikovsky, 16). Crane focuses in a similar fashion on Henry Fleming, at once reducing the scale of the war and intensifying its effect. Henry, who thinks himself alone among his peers, is eternally vigilant for enemies--within and without.

"Home Sweet Home," the second of Homer's paintings to garner attention, was painted while observing the Army of the Potomac during the Peninsular Campaign in 1862--the following spring this army fought at Chancellorsville. A pair of Union soldiers (infantrymen, like Henry Fleming) in camp listen to the regimental band play nostalgic songs. The feeling of the painting is recreated in Henry Fleming's evening reminiscences after a day of marching and fretting about his fitness for war: "He wished, without reserve, that he was at home again making the endless rounds from the house to the bar, from the barn to the fields, from the fields to the barn, from the barn to the house...he would have sacrificed all the brass buttons on the continent to have been enabled to return" (Crane, 129). Crane's description of Henry's restless melancholy in the "eternal camp" at Falmouth has a precursor in Homer's camp-bound soldiers. They all brood in their new "home," the theatre of war.


Late in Red Badge Henry's regiment makes a successful charge and manages to capture the Confederates' flag and take four prisoners. Crane's account of these prisoners might be drawn from two separate sources: a photograph of some Confederate troops captured at Gettysburg and Homer's painting, "Prisoner's From the Front." The Gettysburg prisoners pose proudly for the camera: one man splays his hands out across his lapels like a dandy; another leans on one bent leg against a pile of rails (Crane's prisoners are taken near a rail fence, as well); the third gazes stoically into the distance. In Homer's painting, perhaps the most celebrated of his Civil War canvases, a Union officer appraises three Confederate prisoners escorted from the front. To the far left, a stolid-faced, poor-white yokel cows before the general's authority. On the right, the brash, impudent, courtly Virginian refuses to give any deference to the shorter Union commander. In the middle of these two stands an old man, clearly uncertain about what his situation and holds for him. The mix of insolence and resignation that appears in the Gettysburg photograph and in Homer's three prisoners resonates in Crane's depiction of the Confederates captured by Henry's regiment:

The third captive sat with a morose countenance. He preserved a stoical and cold attitude. To all advances he made one reply without variation, Ah, go t' hell!'....The last of the four was always silent and, for the most part, kept his face turned in unmolested directions....The youth could detect no expression that would allow him to believe that the other was giving a thought to his narrowed future, the pictured dungeons, perhaps, and starvations and brutalities, liable to the imagination. All to be seen was shame for captivity and regret for the right to antagonize." (Crane, 226-27)
The lack of North-South reconciliation that critics noted in "Prisoners from the Front" is conveyed with equal emphasis in Crane's portrayal of these captives. The "right to antagonize" drives the war and the men that fight it. Without chances for martial exertion, Crane notes sardonically, these men would feel "doomed to peace and obscurity."


One of the most hotly debated aspects of Red Badge is its conclusion. The extent of Crane's irony is difficult to determine. As the regiment marches in the rain and mud, retreating back across the river to end up exactly where they had started, Henry Fleming smiles.

He had rid himself of the red sickness of battle. The sultry nightmare was in the past. He had been an animal blistered and sweating in the heat and pain of war. He turned now with a lover's thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks--an existence of soft and eternal peace.

Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds. (Crane, 231)

Winslow Homer's "The Veteran in a New Field" might very well have figured in Crane's concluding imagery. As already noted, Crane's short story "The Veteran," published a year after Red Badge, portrays an older Henry Fleming's reminiscences about Chancellorsville and the death of the noble tall soldier.
The lone veteran, his uniform shed and lying in a corner of the field, reaps the sheaves of wheat with a scythe. It is easy to imagine this figure as that of Henry Fleming, returned from the war to the farm he had left behind. As he swings the blade, he thinks of his "red badge of courage," of Jim Conklin's death, of the cost and meaning of war. The irony in Homer's painting is as complex and multi-layered as that in Crane's novel. The images convince, but their relation to one another remains unclear; their places in an overarching story remain in doubt.


It has not been the purpose of this project to suggest that Crane crafted Red Badge while seated in front of the paintings and photographs discussed above, that is not likely the case. What is suggested is that the authenticity of Crane's war novel is highly mediated by his reliance on and (re)presentation of popular visual representations of the Civil War. But what does this matter? In Red Badge, "Henry's obsession with seeing suggests that he trades the role of actor for the spectator, to gain both a sense of control and a vicarious thrill from observing the battle at a safe enough distance not to be crushed by it" (Kaplan, 1986, 98). In his later work as a journalist covering foreign conflicts, Crane charaterized himself as an observer of spectacle, a "cheap telescope" for the readers back home, away from the action. If the war is a spectacle and Henry a spectator, then the process by which Henry sheds the illusions which cloud his observation of the battlefield--the sham visions of chivalric glory, the promise of the intended waiting at home--and becomes capable of registering "mechanical but firm impressions" of the scenes he sees can be thought of as the change from narrator to photographer.

Crane attempts to portray authentic experience through a series of vivid impressions. Fighting in a war without identifiable territorial objectives, Henry senses a loss of individual control and purpose. He acknowledges the irrelevance of rational interpretation and feels acutely the failure of political or religious or philosophical language to make personal catastrophe intelligible. This breakdown of narrative explanation is embodied in Crane's fragmented, discontinuous rendition of Henry's experiences. Red Badge re-presents visual representations of the Civil War in order to critique contemporary attitudes about heroism and nationalism. As such, it is hostile toward the cultural situation of America at the end of the 19th century--the unresolved, unintelligible catastrophe of the Civil War haunted urban unrest, impersonal mass society, political corruption, and social backsliding on efforts toward emancipation. Yet the novel is not strictly an exercise in iconoclasm. The process by which Henry sheds his illusions leads him to assert by novel's conclusion that the antagonistic co-operation necessary to democratic society must be embraced. Such conviction is embodied in the scene in which he struggles with his fellow soldier to uphold the flag on the battlefield. Mingled with the irony of Henry's "education" is a certain wistfulness, an indication that Crane seeks reasons to be pious about America. Red Badge's images of the war urge a regeneration of America's commitment to the rights of each and every one of its citizens, a renewal of its democratic energies. Crane asks a recognition from his reader that the virtues Henry achieves only in battle are of utmost importance in everyday life.

~ ~ ~

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