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This chapter takes place largely in the mind of the young soldier as he tries to come to terms with his desertion and figure out what to do next. It is an impressive psychological portrait of a man at war with himself, struggling with his guilt. The young soldier is still trying to rationalize his flight, and still harbors dreams of glory, but for the most part he recognizes what he has done. As he walks along he alternates between hope and despair, self-justification and self-hatred.
Seeing retreating wagons, teams, and men, Henry comforts himself; if everyone is retreating, he is not so bad. But then he sees a column of infantry marching proudly forward, and he wonders what made them so brave. He recognizes that "He could never be like them." But as his envy grows, he imagines himself a hero "leading lurid charges,"- and fills with plans to start for the front. But then he realizes how hard it would be. He has no rifle. Well, the fields are full of abandoned rifles, he could pick one up. He could never find his regiment. Well, he could fight with any regiment. If he returned, his comrades would realize that he had previously fled. No, they would not see his face in battle. Drained and paralyzed by these conflicts, he realizes that he is hungry, thirsty, and sore.
In the jerky, somewhat confused sentences in this chapter, Crane anticipates
a technique of writing that was later called "stream of consciousness."
The idea is that words and thoughts appear on the page just as they appear
in the character's mind-not in nice, neat sentences, but in short, often
"A certain mothlike quality within him kept him in the vicinity of the battle." He wanted to know who was winning. Of course, he hoped for a Union victory. At the same time, he realized that a defeat might vindicate him. "A serious prophet upon predicting a flood should be the first man to climb a tree." Besides, defeats are blamed on generals-and usually the wrong ones, at that-not on individual soldiers.
He wanted desperately to be proved right. Otherwise, he feared he would "wear the sore badge of his dishonor through life." "He denounced himself as a villain," and imagined that he was a murderer of the soldiers who were brave enough to fight. Again he wished that he were dead.
But in the end he could not really hope for the defeat of the Union army. He imagined it as a "mighty blue machine" that "would make victories as a contrivance turns out buttons." Realizing that his side would win, he began to envision his return to camp, and wondered how he could explain his absence to the other men. He imagined them laughing and pointing at him. His name would become synonymous with cowardice; he would become "a slang phrase."
Some of the language in this chapter echoes what has gone before. The young soldier's perception of the advancing troops with the "sinuous movement of a serpent" recalls the description of the regiment as a "huge crawling reptile" in Chapter 2. Too, the familiar image of war as a machine reappears here in the reference to the "mighty blue machine" that turns out victories. The image of the young soldier as a moth makes us think of war as a flame, recalling his need for "blaze, blood, and danger" to discover the meaning of courage in Chapter 2. There is some religious language here, too, in the young soldier's likening himself to a "prophet," and his vision of the brave soldiers as "chosen beings." And of course "the sore badge of dishonor" is an ironic contrast to "the red badge of courage."