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Crane was a leading proponent of naturalism, a school of literary thought in which the environment, rather than individual will, determines the outcome of characters' lives. Since naturalism applies social environment to literature, Crane's many, varied experiences, especially his time as a foreign war correspondent, helped him to understand society better and to apply it to his writing. In time, Crane was able to develop his own particular version of literary naturalism. Unlike the work of other naturalists, he spends less time on documenting facts and more time on evaluating the responses of characters to the harsh realities of their lives. Like the naturalists, his characters are, first and foremost, types not individuals; they are created in broad enough terms that the reader can see Crane's characters as representative of whole classes of people.
A distinguishing feature of literary naturalism was its determination to write the experiences that had never been in the pages of literature before. Crane definitely wrote about previously untold experiences, such as those of a pregnant young prostitute or a disillusioned, young foot soldier. To make his writing more realistic, he learned as much as possible about his subject matter. In preparing to write The Red Badge of Courage, Crane conducted extensive interviews with veterans who knew war first hand. Even though he had never seen battle himself, the war scenes in the novel are extremely realistic. They also describe for the first time the radical change in warfare created by the modern bullet, which made combat a distanced affair, rather than a hand-to-hand combat.
The setting of the novel is the Civil War, which took place between 1860 and 1865. Since this is largely a psychological novel about Henry Fleming, Crane is never too concerned about the historical details of the war. He never states the date or place of the action. He does, however, clearly indicate that Henry joins the Union (Northern) forces. He leaves his New York Country home and travels south, further than Washington D.C. Although it is never stated in the novel, it is believed by most critics that the battle scenes in The Red Badge of Courage take place in Chancellorsville, Virginia, for Crane does mention the Rappahannock River and the proximity to Richmond.
The actual Battle of Chancellorsville began on May 2, 1863. General Lee attacked the Union troops, cutting the northern army in half. The Union troops managed to set up a defensive line against the South, and the fighting raged for four days. The Union army, however, could not hold out against the Confederate forces. Hooker, the commander of the northern troops, finally retreated, for he had lost many men to death, wounds, and desertion. The Confederate victory was, however, bittersweet, for Lee lost his most able general in the fight. Stonewall Jackson was wounded on the first day of fighting and died eight days later.
Because of his victory at Chancellorsville, Lee decided to invade the North again. In June of 1863, the Confederate forces marched into Pennsylvania. On July 1, the battle began at Gettysburg. For the first three days in July, a Union army of 90,000 soldiers fought a Southern army of 75,000 in the greatest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere. Although the South fought valiantly, they could not defeat the strong Union enemy. It was the turning point of the war. Lee, having lost 20,000 men, withdrew his battered troops to Virginia. Never again did he have the strength to undertake a major offensive against the North.