The Red Badge of Courage | Study Guide

Stephen Crane

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Course Hero. "The Red Badge of Courage Study Guide." February 27, 2017. Accessed November 14, 2018.


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The Red Badge of Courage | Plot Summary

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Set during the American Civil War (1861–65), The Red Badge of Courage opens with a depiction of the boredom and disarray of the Union army after a winter of camping and drilling. The men bicker over whether the tall soldier's news that they will move the next day is accurate. The news makes the youth, Henry Fleming, consider whether he will stay and fight or run away in fear when faced with an actual battle. The rumor proves false, which provides Henry with too much time on his hands to think and consider how he will act. He has an idealized view of war and thinks he will be a hero, but as he overthinks the situation, he begins to lose confidence in his own bravery and envisions the enemy as animals and men of steel. He tries to find other like-minded soldiers but hesitates to question anyone outright in fear of offending them and revealing his self-doubts.

When finally engaged in fighting, Henry is proud of himself for staying and fighting, but because of his naiveté and inexperience, he thinks after one battle he can rest and recover. However, when the enemy charges again, he runs in fear, thinking the entire Confederate army is shooting at him. Henry tries to rationalize his actions; he convinces himself he is smarter than the other men by trying to save himself. He thinks his regiment was set up for annihilation, and the generals will be able to build a new regiment with the men who fled; he tries to convince himself he is a superior breed and that his running away was strategic rather than fear based. As he wanders the countryside in safety, Henry's feelings vacillate when he overhears that his regiment repelled the enemy, when he sees the dead soldier in the chapel-like grove of trees, and when he encounters the line of wounded soldiers.

Henry is self-conscious as he walks with the wounded soldiers because he knows he has no wound. He wishes he, too, had a red badge of courage. He helps Jim Conklin—the tall soldier—and stays with him as he dies, but he abandons the tattered soldier to die alone. Henry tries to convince himself he will fight bravely and heads back toward the fighting. However, a group of men fleeing in terror runs toward him. In an effort to find out what is happening, Henry grabs one of the men, who in his fright hits Henry on the side of the head with the butt of his rifle. Henry now struggles to maintain his physical strength as the head wound has left him wobbly. As night falls, a cheerful soldier safely leads Henry to his regiment.

Henry is surprised that Wilson—the loud soldier—and Simpson believe his story of being separated from the regiment and getting shot in the head while fighting on the right flank. Wilson bandages Henry's head and gives him his blankets to sleep on. The next day, with renewed courage and little time for reflection, Henry turns his rage against the enemy and fights heroically. He feels like he's a part of the regiment and suppresses his sense of self. He bonds with Wilson, and the lieutenant is impressed and wishes all the soldiers fought with Henry's intensity.

Henry develops a love for the flag, which represents the North's idealized version of how the country should be run. He becomes the standard (flag) bearer after their flag bearer is killed. His job is now to lead the charge, which he had been doing all day anyway. The flag marks the battle line. He works with the lieutenant to encourage the men to attack the enemy. Instead of ranting against the ineptitude of the Union officers, Henry uses his anger to fuel his desire to eliminate the Confederate soldiers and prove to the officers that the members of the 304th Regiment are not "mule drivers."

The fighting ends for the day with a Union victory, and Henry is pleased he has acted with courage, bravery, and fierceness. He can tell truthful stories about his heroic actions because others can back him up. In a sign of emotional growth, he feels remorse about fleeing on the first day of battle, for abandoning the tattered soldier to die alone, and for his earlier pompous speeches. He takes comfort in despising these actions, a sign that he will not engage in them again.

Despite feeling the exhaustion of battle and marching in the rain, Henry Fleming feels confident and happy; he has rid himself of an idealized version of war and has survived the test of battle.

The Red Badge of Courage Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 Union soldiers camp in spring after wintering in place.

Rising Action

2 Men question general's leadership and plans.

3 Henry Fleming debates whether he will flee in battle.

4 Henry flees second battle in fear.


5 Henry receives head wound by Union soldier.

Falling Action

6 Henry and Wilson fight heroically and repel enemy.


7 Henry matures and becomes a man.

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