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As this chapter opens, the army crosses the river on pontoon bridges, just as General Burnside's troops crossed the Rappahannock in order to attack Lee and Jackson's troops from the rear. The next day they woke early and marched deep into a forest. Hot and tired, they began to drop their knapsacks and take off some of their clothing, stripping down to what was absolutely necessary. Now they looked less like a new regiment.
Then the regiment camped again, and Henry began to think again that they were "a blue demonstration," there only to look like an army. But one morning the young soldier sensed that "the time had come. He was about to be measured." Looking around, he realized that he could not escape. The regiment "inclosed him. And there were iron laws of tradition and law on four sides. He was in a moving box." It seemed to him that he had not enlisted voluntarily, that he had somehow been forced into the army.
As the soldiers climbed a hill, they heard the sound of artillery. The young soldier scrambled to the top, expecting to see a battle scene spread out below him. Instead there was chaos. Henry and his regiment came upon the body of a dead soldier, and separated to walk around him. The boy lay on his back, his feet sticking out of his worn shoes. Death had exposed the poverty that the soldier may have been able to hide from his friends. Henry stared at the dead man, trying to find the answer to his big question about war.
The regiment halted in the forest, where some of the men began to build fortifications, but soon they were ordered to withdraw. The youth grumbled loudly as they marched from place to place for no reason that they could see. He still wished that things would be decided one way or another, that they would either return to camp or go into battle. He complained to the tall soldier, who sat calmly, eating a pork sandwich. Unlike the young soldier, the tall soldier seemed to accept whatever happened.
As the soldiers watched another brigade go into action ahead of them, the
loud soldier approached the young one. Even though he had told the young
soldier (in an earlier chapter) that he could fight as well as the rest,
his lip was trembling as he said, "It's my first and last battle,
old boy." Convinced that he was about to be killed, he gave the young
soldier a small bundle of letters to bring to his family.
In this chapter, as the regiment prepares to go into battle, we see three reactions among the soldiers. Henry, the young soldier, continues to be agitated and upset. He still holds on to his romantic dreams, even though they are contradicted by what he observes. He alternates between wishing for battle and wishing to be back at camp or on the farm. The tall soldier, Jim Conklin, is quiet and resigned. And the loud soldier, Wilson, has a premonition of his death, and sentimentally gives the young soldier some papers to bring back to his folks. Which of them will show courage in the battle ahead? How would you act in their places?
Crane continues to employ symbolic language. Tracing some of the symbols from chapter to chapter will help us to understand Crane's meaning. One of the most important symbols in this book is color. We have already noticed references to campfires as "red eyes" or "red, peculiar blossoms." In this chapter war is described as a "red animal," and the skirmishing soldiers Henry views from the hill are called red, although their uniforms must have been blue. Yellow appears again in the color of the dead man's suit, and purple in the color of the soldiers' uniforms as they crossed the bridge in the early morning light. Be alert to color as it appears in the chapters that follow.
Color is not the only image Crane uses. Throughout these first three chapters he has made several references to Greek mythology. Henry, as a schoolboy, had dreamed about war as a "Greeklike struggle," and he had hoped that his mother would say something about returning on his shield, the way Greek warriors killed in battle were carried home. Often the images of Greek culture are used ironically-they represent Henry's fantasies of war, not the real thing. But it is interesting that at the opening of this chapter the Rappahannock (we still do not know its name) is characterized as "wine-tinted." Homer often referred in The Iliad to the "wine dark sea," and this allusion would have been easily recognized by Crane's readers at the time. Is Crane suggesting here that the Union soldiers really were as heroic as the Greek warriors of old?
Another frequent image in The Red Badge of Courage is religious. We have already heard about the "mystic gloom" of the morning and of the "weird, satanic effect" of firelight. In this chapter there are references to the "blood-swollen god" (of war) and to the "cathedral light" of the forest. The loud soldier waves good-bye to Jim in a "prophetic" manner. Religious imagery is another pattern that should be followed, especially when it relates to the tall soldier, Jim Conklin.