The Red Badge of Courage | Study Guide

Stephen Crane

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The Red Badge of Courage | Chapter 20 | Summary



Henry wins the tussle with Wilson over who will carry the flag. The depleted regiment has drifted back, and the officers try to spur the men forward again. The majority of the men are discouraged and feel betrayed by the officers. Henry is part of the regiment that continues to shoot—even as they are retreating—at the advancing enemy; he feels the retreat is "a march of shame." Henry wants to prove to the officer who had called them "mule drivers" that they are better than that, and he rages against the officer when he realizes they are defeated. Henry, full of rage, and the lieutenant encourage the men to fight; between the two men is "felt a subtle fellowship and equality." The men, however, are demoralized and do not respond.

Then they become more confused as they fear they are being fired on from the front and the rear. Henry walks into the hiding mob and plants the flag; Wilson thinks they are doomed, as does the lieutenant. Suddenly through the smoke, Henry can see the faces of the enemy who have unwittingly crept too close to the regiment. The two regiments engage in a fierce gun battle. At first Henry thinks they are losing and sits wearily on the ground with the flag between his knees. He is proud of the "vicious, wolflike temper of his comrades" and consoles himself with the thought that at least they are fighting as they are being over taken. But Henry's regiment proves successful as the enemy retreats. Some of the men dance with joy and they are gleeful that they have proven themselves.


The regiment is divided between those who are demoralized and feel betrayed by the officers and those who keep shooting as they retreat, which reflects the general state of the Union army at this time in the war. However, Henry feels a surge of anger against the officer who called his regiment "mule drivers." Previously, Henry would have voiced powerless complaints against the officer, but with growth of character, he accepts personal responsibility and works with the lieutenant to encourage the men. The enemy's mistake of getting too close spurs the men of Henry's regiment to fight, and Henry, still holding the flag, is encouraged to see the animal ferocity in his comrades who successfully repel the Confederate surge. It is notable that again the animal imagery shifts from the enemy to the Union soldiers. Success in battle is dependent on the soldiers' ability to give up their humanity and behave with an animal instinct for survival.

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