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Course Hero, "The Red Badge of Courage Study Guide," February 27, 2017, accessed August 21, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Red-Badge-of-Courage/.

The Red Badge of Courage | Context

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American Civil War

The American Civil War lasted for four years (1861–65), its roots having sprung from the growing division between northern industrialism that relied on paid labor and southern agriculturalism that relied on slave labor. With the election of Abraham Lincoln—a northern Republican—as president in 1860, the southern states feared their way of life would be threatened. Seven southern states withdrew from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. After the attack on Fort Sumter in Charlestown, South Carolina, four more states seceded and joined the Confederates; this marked the beginning of the Civil War.

Men from both sides volunteered to protect their ideals. For most of the soldiers, their idealized versions of war proved false: "Volunteers soon found their visions of glory did not match the reality of life in camp, where they spent most of their time. They drilled for a part of every day and spent the remainder fighting profound boredom by reading, writing letters, playing pranks, performing plays and concerts, and other activities." Volunteer regiments were typically drawn from a town or geographic area, so the men knew each other well. Stephen Crane captures the boredom of camp and the local friendships in The Red Badge of Courage. The American Civil War was brutal and the loss of life staggering: more than 620,000 men succumbed to disease or wounds.

While the war was initially fought by both sides to preserve their respective views of the Union, slavery became more of an issue as the war progressed. With the men away at war, women in the North and South were left to run small farms, and in the South, to manage plantations with slaves. Many slaves escaped when Northern soldiers were camped nearby, making the northerners aware of the moral issues associated with slavery. It wasn't until 1863 that Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery. This added freeing the slaves to the North's focus of preserving the Union. Many former slaves—almost 180,000—fought for the Northern cause.

Even though the North outnumbered the South in troops, for the first two years of the war, the Northern troops were disorganized; the men were dismayed by the lack of strong leadership; and they were losing their convictions. The South, on the other hand, was led by General Robert E. Lee and their strong belief in their right to secede. It wasn't until after the Emancipation Proclamation that the Northern troops rallied around a cause, gained momentum, and started to win battles.

While Stephen Crane never names the battle Henry Fleming is involved in, many scholars believe it is based on the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia. Not only does the character Henry Fleming in Crane's short story "The Veteran" (1896) refer to the Battle of Chancellorsville, but the timing of the battle (early spring after a winter in camp), the location (near the Rappahannock River), and the maneuvers of the troops point to the Battle of Chancellorsville.

Realism and Naturalism

Realism is a literary style that emerged in the second part of the 19th century in which authors attempted to recreate scenes, action, and people as realistically as possible, including the psychological aspects of characters. Influenced by journalism, realist novels record events factually without judgment and tend to focus on the poor or working classes. Having grown out of psychology as a growing medical field, realism delves into the psychology of characters and their inner conflicts. Stephen Crane, with his journalism background and interest in the poor, uses a realist narrative style in many of his works, including The Red Badge of Courage.

Naturalism was a literary style that flows from the realist style and emerged at the end of the 19th century. In naturalist literature the environment plays an important role, often becoming a character in its own right. Also, the social environment, such as the state of poverty, is explored for how it affects characters. Stephen Crane, writing at the end of the 19th century, employs naturalistic techniques in The Red Badge of Courage. The novel does not glorify war; rather it is a psychological study of a poor farm boy who has little control of his situation as a foot soldier in the army.

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