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THE PLOT (BRIEF CHAPTER SUMMARY)
The Red Badge of Courage describes how Henry Fleming, a young soldier from New York State, first experiences fighting at the Battle of Chancellorsville during the American Civil War. At first Henry is nervous, and even runs away after one of the first skirmishes, but eventually he returns to his regiment and fights bravely. By the battle's end, Henry has learned a lot about himself and the meaning of courage. He has grown up, and so have many of his fellow soldiers.
This is the plot of The Red Badge of Courage. The novel does not tell a story so much as it focuses on the perceptions and development of one young man. We see what war looks like to Henry, and the effect it has on his thoughts and feelings. In many chapters there is action-Henry's friend dies, or the Confederate soldiers charge and the Union troops push them back. But in other chapters nothing much happens except in Henry's mind. Because Henry's emotions swing back and forth-sometimes he feels proud and brave, other times like a criminal-the book does not follow a straight line either.
As The Red Badge of Courage opens, we meet Henry Fleming, who has signed up for the army against his mother's wishes, full of dreams of becoming a hero. But so far he has done nothing but sit around the camp. With all that time on his hands, Henry begins to worry whether he will be able to fight bravely, or whether he'll run away when the shooting starts. He talks to some of the others about it, but because he cannot really explain his fears, he feels more and more alone. Jim Conklin, a friend from home, thinks he'll do whatever the other boys do; a loud soldier named Wilson is full of boasts. The first sight of battle is terrifying, and Henry feels worse and worse. Even the loud soldier, convinced he's about to be killed, gives Henry some letters for his family.
During the first skirmish Henry fights well, feeling as much part of the regiment as the fingers of a hand. They hold the enemy back. But while they are relaxing, the enemy strikes again. Now Henry is exhausted and terrified. When two men standing near him turn and run, he throws down his gun and races to the rear. He tells himself that the regiment was about to be wiped out, and that saving himself was a responsible act. But he soon realizes that the line had held. Now he is furious at the other soldiers for making him look like a coward when he's sure that he was right.
Feeling awful, Henry walks into the woods, both to hide and to make himself feel better. He throws a pine cone at a squirrel, the animal scampers off, and he thinks to himself, "What I did was only the law of nature; animals protect themselves." But in the heart of the forest, under trees arched like a cathedral, Henry confronts a horrible sight: a dead man terribly decayed, whose face is covered with ants. He stares at the dead soldier, realizing that this is the real law of nature.
Leaving the woods, Henry walks along with some wounded men. He envies them and wishes that he too had a wound, a red badge of courage. One of the men, he realizes, is his friend, Jim Conklin, who is dying. Henry and another soldier, a tattered man, follow Jim into a field, where he runs from bush to bush, looking for a good place to die. Then, his body jerking horribly, he falls. This scene ends with the most famous line in the book: "The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer."
The tattered man keeps asking Henry where he's been wounded. His questions make Henry nervous that he'll be found out. So he leaves the tattered man-who is badly wounded and needs help-and goes on alone. Next he encounters some soldiers who appear to be retreating. Eager to find out what's going on, Henry grabs one soldier's arm. In a panic, the soldier hits Henry on the head with the butt of his rifle. Now Henry has a red badge of courage-except that it came from his own side! A man with a cheery voice comes along and helps Henry find his way back to his regiment, where the others welcome him warmly. They do not question his story, and believe that the top of his head was grazed by a cannonball. The loud soldier, Wilson, seems to have quieted down, and he and Henry become good friends. Henry feels a little superior to him because Wilson thought he would die in the first encounter, but he gives him back his letters without rubbing it in.
Henry is still struggling with himself. He's afraid he'll be found out, but he also feels pretty good, telling himself that at least he ran away bravely. When the next day's fighting begins, Henry gets so involved in shooting that he doesn't stop even when the rebels withdraw. During the next charge, some of the other soldiers hesitate, and Henry helps the lieutenant urge them forward. He sees the Union flag falling, and he and Wilson pull it out of the hands of the dying color bearer. After the next charge the regiment is criticized for returning to its lines too quickly, but Henry and Wilson are commended for bravery. They charge again, they're exhausted, but another charge is necessary. Unbelievably, they find some remaining strength and move forward in a frenzy, not thinking about danger or themselves. They win-Wilson captures the Confederate flag and they take prisoners.
During the actual fighting Henry had not been thinking about himself; he acted on instinct, feeling like an animal or a savage. As the regiment marched away, he began to think about his experiences. He was proud of his bravery-although it was nothing like his childhood dreams-and embarrassed by his desertion of the tattered man. But in the end he realized that through it all he had become a man. Walking along, he daydreamed about the comforts of peace as the sun broke through the heavy clouds.