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SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
Despite all the action of the novel, Crane's emphasis is on the Youth's psychological and unconscious response to the battlefront. Henry Fleming begins the novel as an untried youth with all the misconceptions and mystifications of war that boys are raised to believe; as a result, he eagerly joins the Union army. At first he enjoys military life as his regiment marches in parades before cheering civilians. Soon, however, the Youth is disappointed to realize that army life is boring drudgery. His regiment is marched, drilled, and halted repeatedly. He despairs that he will never see action.
The build-up to the action magnifies his fears about being courageous in battle. Because of his fears, he becomes a loner, who is unable to enjoy the talk of his comrades. He grows morose and depressed. When he is sent to the front, he sees men running in the confusion of battle, and he begins to run himself. He finds himself in a forest where he tries to recover from his fear and anxiety. He emerges and stumbles upon a procession of wounded soldiers.
He joins them and sees one man from his regiment die on the road. Another wounded man begins to show the signs of dying, and the Youth runs from him too. He comes upon a regiment in retreat and tries to stop a soldier to ask him what is happening; the soldier hits him over the head with his rifle. The Youth finds his way back to his own regiment, and his comrades assume he has been injured in battle. He feels an overwhelming sense of shame over having run.
The next day in battle, Henry fights harder than any of his comrades and even acts as a leader for them. Later in the day, he and his friend come upon a general holding a meeting with several officers. His commanding officer volunteers his regiment for a strategic mission to attack the enemy line. His commander calls his regiment "mule drivers." The general predicts that few of them will survive the operation.
The Youth and his friend fight bravely, encouraging their tired comrades in the heat of battle. The Youth comes to be the flag bearer. His regiment is partially successful. The men are insulted when a commander tells their lieutenant that they stopped short of success. Nevertheless, the men are proud of their fortitude in holding the enemy line. When his regiment fights another battle on the same day, they break the enemy's line and take four prisoners. The Youth reflects on his experiences and begins to forgive himself for his desertion. He realizes he is only a man, not a hero, and finds peace in that.