Book Review: The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

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The Red Badge of Courage is a war novel by American author Stephen Crane, published in 1895. The story follows a young man named Henry Fleming who flees from the battlefield during the American Civil War but later joins the fight and serves as a flag bearer for his regiment. Henry wants to prove his bravery by receiving a wound, which he believes would earn him the “Red Badge of Courage.”

Despite being born after the war and having no direct experience of it, Crane’s novel is known for its realism. He drew inspiration from contemporary and written accounts of the war, including the Chancellorsville War, and may have also interviewed veterans of the 124th New York Infantry Regiment.

The novel was first serialized in newspapers in 1894 before being published in full in 1895. In 1982, a longer version of the work based on Crane’s original manuscript was released.

You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book review provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.

Let’s get started without further ado.

In this The Red Badge of Courage book summary, I’m going to cover the following topics:

Book Summary

A farm boy discovers his courage in the heat of a Civil War battle but gains only a limited understanding of himself in the war.

Chapters 1–3 

Henry Fleming, a young man aflame with visions of military glory, enlisted in the Union Army (Northern states) during the Civil War between the North and the South. Though his Mother had been reluctant to let her son go off to war, she finally consented after tiring of his eager demands. 

But as he was preparing to leave, she disappointed him by treating him as a child, not as a man. Henry, believing that he was destined for greatness, was irritated by her practical concerns for his food and clothing. 

Anxious to depart, Henry enjoyed his moment of strutting before his schoolmates, but the monotony of military camp life soon depressed him. The veterans yelled “fresh fish” at him, and he was eager to prove himself in battle. But in moments of solitude and reflection, he worried about the test of his character that lay ahead. 

Would he run from the enemy? Would he be paralyzed by fear? He turned shyly to his nearest comrades for advice and reassurance—-Jim Conklin, a tall, older soldier who revealed a quiet self-confidence, and a young man named Wilson, who boasted of the brave deeds he and others would perform on the field of battle. Henry was ashamed to admit his fear and felt alone.

Chapters 4–5 

Suddenly the regiment was thrown into battle. Henry felt swept along toward his own slaughter. He judged himself to be a sensitive young man surrounded by brutes and led by incompetent, unfeeling generals. 

As the regiment prepared for the enemy’s charge, Henry was shocked to receive a packet of letters from a gloomy Wilson, who feared he would die in the battle. When the enemy charged, Henry fired wildly into their ranks and was carried along with the group engaged in repelling the enemy. 

He felt reassured and encouraged by the regiment’s bold stand, though the soldiers around him did not seem so heroic in battle. They fought like puppets, and when hit, they dropped like sacks of laundry. But the line held and the charge was repulsed.

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Chapters 6–7 

Henry congratulated himself for being magnificent in battle. He and his comrades began celebrating their victory. Then the army charged a second time. When some men along the line threw down their guns and fled, Henry, turned and fled also. When he reached the artillery gunners at the rear, he regarded them as fools for remaining calmly at their posts, for he knew they were certain to die. 

Then he overheard a general’s exclamation that the line had held. Henry cringed and hid in the forest like a criminal, all the while trying to convince himself that he had acted rationally and wisely by fleeing what had appeared to be certain death. He threw a pine cone at a squirrel and took comfort in watching him flee. 

Henry had acted on instinct and the law of Nature, whereas his comrades had been too stupid to run. But fate proved him wrong: His comrades were able to turn back the enemy and were considered heroic for doing so. 

He cursed fate for rewarding their “stupidity” and condemning him for his superior perceptions. Eventually, he reached a “chapel” in the woods formed by high, arching branches. There, in the centre, back against a tree, a corpse stared at him with dead fish eyes out of a yellow face crawling with ants. Henry fled in terror.

Chapters 8–13 

Running with no sense of direction behind his own lines, he stumbled upon a column of the wounded. When a tattered soldier inquired sympathetically about the nature of his wound—assuming that Henry must have been wounded if he were travelling with the column of the wounded—Henry retreated in shame and confusion to the rear of the column. 

He envied the soldiers their wounds and wished more than anything else for such a “red badge of courage.” Then he stumbled upon Jim Conklin, who was badly wounded, writhing in pain, and terrified that artillery wagons would run him down in the road. Henry and the tattered soldier, who had tried to befriend him earlier, managed to get Jim out of the road only to see him jerk about, grow stiff, and fall suddenly dead. Henry shook his fist in anger at the battlefield behind him, and the “red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer.”

The tattered soldier, confused and disoriented, needed Henry’s help. But when he inquired again about Henry’s wound, Henry feared he would be embarrassed by having to confess that he was actually not wounded. 

So he left the soldier behind and wandered into an open field. Henry hated himself for deserting the soldier in need and admitted that he could never become a hero. Instead, he felt he had murdered his comrades on the line by deserting them. He wished he were dead and envied the corpses sprawled about him on the battlefield: they had just been lucky, he told himself. 

He expected his own fate to be much worse—it meant enduring the accusations of cowardice from his comrades. Suddenly he found himself in the midst of another panic-stricken retreat. Clutching at a retreating fellow infantryman to get news of the battle, he was struck in the head with a rifle butt. He stumbled on in terrible pain until he found his regiment, where he was welcomed as a wounded comrade.

Chapters 14–17 

The following day, Henry’s self-confidence was soon restored. No one knew he had fled from the battle. He felt superior to Wilson, who asked Henry for his letters back. Henry noticed a change in Wilson: he no longer acted like such a braggart. Henry also felt superior to those who had fled terror stricken, believing he had retreated with dignity. 

Again, he felt sure that he would perform great deeds on the battlefield because he had conquered adversity. Preparing to face another enemy charge, Henry began to hate the enemy as much as he had hated his situation the previous day. He lost track of everything but this hatred, and fought like a demon. Others began to see him as a hero.

Chapters 18–20 

Then he overheard a general refer to his regiment as a bunch of “mule drivers” (i.e., slow and stupid). That took Henry down a peg, but he was determined to prove the general wrong. When his regiment was ordered to attack, he led the charge, his eyes gleaming like fires. He fought like a madman and the regiment followed his example. 

When the flagbearer fell, Henry and Wilson both grabbed for the pole, but the charge faltered, and they were forced to retreat. Henry felt depressed until, in the course of the retreat, the regiment met and turned back a counterattack from the side. Now they felt like men, not mule drivers.

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Chapters 21–23 

When they returned to the Union lines, they suffered the taunts and rebukes of veterans and officers for failing to complete the charge. But Henry swelled with pride upon hearing that he and Wilson had been praised for their valor. 

When the regiment was ordered to charge again, Henry carried the flag boldly, half hoping that he would die in battle just to prove the officer wrong who had called his regiment mule drivers. Meanwhile, bodies were dropping in hideous fashion on either side of him. He fought blindly in a reckless frenzy until the enemy was driven from the field.

Chapter 24 

As the noise of gunfire died slowly, Henry reflected on his performance as a soldier. He felt a little guilty about his cowardly retreat the previous day, but he quickly brushed that aside. He had proved himself on the field of battle today, and he would never run again because he was no longer afraid of death. He knew he was a man now.


Henry Fleming: Farm boy in late teens; under fire in war for the first time. Hungry for glory. Wide swings of emotion and moods, from self-confidence and pride to fear and self-hatred. Capable of bravery in battle, but incapable of accurately assessing his motives (usually vanity or fear) or of judging his conduct. In his desire to be a hero, he lies to himself and to his comrades about his exploits. 

Crane often refers to Henry as “the youth” so that Henry will represent all young people fighting in their first battle, caught in the grip of internal and external forces (instincts and circumstances) which they neither understand nor are able to control.

Henry’s Mother: Practical, religious. Temporarily deflates Henry’s high opinion of himself as a soldier bound for glory by harping on the practical concerns of soldiering (e.g., food, clothing) and by urging him to accept the limitations of his youth and inexperience.

Jim Conklin: Tall, older soldier in Henry’s regiment; displays quiet self-assurance. Natural leader. Brave but modest. Faces death calmly, courageously. Henry wants to be like Jim, unafraid of death. Possible Christ figure (initials, wound in side, Communion wafer in sky at death) whose death atones for Henry’s sin of cowardice.

Wilson: Loud, young recruit in Henry’s regiment; an untested know-it-all who boasts of his bravery in order to cover his fear. Shows that Henry is not the only recruit afraid of dying. Transformed in battle from an immature braggart to a quiet, self-assured, fearless soldier.

Anonymous “Tattered” Soldier: Wounded Union soldier; caring, sympathetic, helpful to those in need. Haunts Henry’s conscience because Henry left him to die rather than allow him to expose Henry’s cowardice.


1. Courage 

Henry discovers courage in the heat of battle following his return from the cowardly retreat. But Crane regards Henry’s courage suspiciously and treats it ironically by showing that when Henry acts courageously in battle (holding his position against the charging enemy and leading the attack against the enemy), he does so out of blind instinct, temporary insanity, or fear of being labeled a “coward.” 

The wound (“red badge of courage”) he receives from a panic-stricken soldier on his own side is shamefully come by, yet it restores Henry’s pride and inspires him to fight like a hero in the next battle. The reader sees what Henry does not see—that his courage under fire is only blind rage against the enemy. Crane does not portray courage as the virtue it seems to be, but as an unreasoning response to an external threat. It is as unreflective and unwilled as cowardice, and does not deserve praise.

2. War 

By leaving out references to date or place of battle, Crane reveals that his true subject is not a specific Civil War battle, but war in general—and in specific, the psychological effects upon individuals who fight in battle. The fighting seems chaotic and out of control. Officers appear incompetent, their orders arbitrary. 

Death is random and horrible. Bodies are twisted into contorted positions. By leaving out the principles and causes for which the Civil War was fought, Crane reduces war to a meaningless, even absurd spectacle of human waste and folly. In this sense, the book can be read as an antiwar novel.

3. Self-Knowledge vs. Self-Deception 

Henry never achieves a complete knowledge of “self.” He cannot explain his actions to himself without resorting to self-deceptions; for example: (a) his early distaste for battle was due to his sensitive nature; (b) his superior intelligence explains his flight from battle; (c) deliverance from fear explains his later courage. 

At the novel’s end, he can look back proudly on his performance in battle only because he has painted over his failure of nerve and errors in judgment in order to flatter his ego. He believes he has become a man in battle, but in reality he has simply fought like an enraged animal. He does not know himself.

4. Fate and Determinism 

By virtue of an accident (his wound), Henry emerges victorious over circumstances that had threatened to expose him as a coward. When he is welcomed back as a hero, Henry realizes that one sometimes has to cover up the past and leave things to fate; in this way, consequences of shameful acts can be avoided. 

Whereas he had earlier cursed circumstances (fate) for ruining his life, he now declares his independence from those who complain too much about them. Ironically, his self-confidence at this point depends on his present circumstances. 

His behavior throughout the novel is determined by a combination of external circumstances (of battle) over which he has no control, and by internal forces (vanity, fear, rationalization) of which he is entirely ignorant. He is not the master of his own fate, as he believes he is.

5. Death 

Henry’s attitude toward death changes in the course of the novel from trembling fear to blind indifference. His fear is strongest upon discovery of the gruesome corpse in the forest. His indifference develops in response to inquiries from the tattered soldier that prompt him to fear shame more than death; his fear peaks when he envies corpses. 

By the end of the novel, Henry has convinced himself that he no longer fears death; he believes it to be inevitable—and not so awful now that he has seen so much of it. Rather than live in fear of it, he seeks to earn the approval of his comrades by his brave conduct in the face of death.

6. Nature 

Indifferent to human suffering and an impenetrable mystery. Henry sees what he wants to see in nature: according to his mood or circumstances, he sees it as sympathetic to his plight, openly hostile and threatening, or coldly indifferent.

7. Growing Up 

War forces young soldiers to grow up rapidly. Henry is no exception. Grim realities shake him out of his glorified view of war. He makes a huge emotional leap in a few short days: He begins to overcome cowardice, gains acceptance of his situation, acquires a certain self-confidence, and develops leadership qualities. 

He comes to see war for what it is—a bloody testing ground upon which to prove himself. He has grown up, but not completely. He is still vain and foolish enough to rate his performance too highly, but ignorant of his motives for fighting bravely, and blind to his helplessness in the grip of forces he cannot control.

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1. Realistic portrayal of war

Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage” is known for its realistic portrayal of the Civil War. He drew inspiration from contemporary and written accounts of the war, including the Chancellorsville War, and may have also interviewed veterans of the 124th New York Infantry Regiment. The novel’s depiction of the harsh realities of war, such as the fear and confusion experienced by soldiers, makes it an insightful read.

2. Character development

The protagonist, Henry Fleming, undergoes a significant transformation throughout the novel. At the beginning, he is a young man eager to prove his bravery and achieve military glory. However, as he experiences the horrors of war, he becomes disillusioned with his idealistic notions and learns to face his fears. The gradual evolution of Henry’s character is compelling and adds depth to the novel.

3. Exploration of themes

The Red Badge of Courage explores a range of themes, including the nature of courage, the effects of war on individuals, and the human condition. The novel’s thought-provoking exploration of these themes makes it a timeless work of literature.


1. Limited perspective

While “The Red Badge of Courage” offers a realistic portrayal of the Civil War, it is limited in its perspective. The novel only focuses on the experiences of one soldier, Henry Fleming, and does not provide a broader view of the war.

2. Lack of diversity

The novel’s cast of characters is not diverse, which is reflective of the time period in which it was written. It primarily features white male soldiers, which may make it difficult for some readers to relate to the story.

3. Overly simplistic portrayal of the enemy

The novel portrays the enemy soldiers in a one-dimensional manner, as faceless villains with no individuality or humanity. This simplistic portrayal of the enemy may be seen as a flaw in the novel’s otherwise nuanced depiction of war.


The Red Badge of Courage is a powerful and realistic portrayal of the experiences of a young soldier during the American Civil War. Through the character of Henry Fleming, Crane vividly captures the fear, confusion, and eventual bravery that many soldiers experienced in the midst of battle.

Despite being born after the war and having no direct experience of it, Crane’s novel is known for its authenticity, drawing inspiration from contemporary and written accounts of the war, including the Chancellorsville War, and possibly interviews with veterans.

Through Henry’s journey, readers gain insight into the psychological toll of war and the difficult process of discovering courage and self-understanding in the face of death.

About The Author

Stephen Crane, a famous author, was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1871 and passed away from tuberculosis when he was only 29 years old. As the son of a minister, he rebelled against his family’s religious beliefs and social values at an early age.

Although he had to cut short his college education due to poor grades and his mother’s death, Crane was well-educated in the streets. He worked as a newspaper journalist in New York City for five years, where he wrote about the poorest sections of the city. He also lived adventurously and traveled extensively.

Crane is best known for his works, including Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) and The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure (1898). In his writing, he depicted people as victims of the harsh forces within themselves and their environment.

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