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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
The first chapter opens with the Tall Soldier announcing that the unit will be moving tomorrow. The other soldiers engage in a dispute over the truth of this rumor. Apparently the army has been camped, with the enemy nearby, for a long time, and the men have begun to doubt if they will ever march. A youthful private, Henry Fleming, listens quietly and then leaves, to be alone with some of his new thoughts. The Youth ponders the coming battle. He feels like he is about to mingle in one of those great affairs on earth, and in the course of the fighting, he will prove himself a hero. "He had, of course, dreamed of battles all his life." Henry then reflects on his past.
While still at home, Henry feared he might never see war. He "had long despaired of witnessing a Greek-like struggle." He had heard tales of war, not like those he had read of in Homer, but still glorified, and he wanted to be a part of them. He had imagined great scenes "extravagant in color, lurid with breathless deeds." With the Civil War, he saw his chance. He told his mother that he planned to enlist. She accepted the fact, said, "The Lord's will be done," and sent him off with common sense advice, to "keep quiet an' do what they tell yeh." She also warned him to drink no liquor, to stay away from bad soldiers, or to never shirk any duties. As Henry departed from home, he saw his mother was crying silently, and he felt ashamed of leaving her.
Before leaving town, Henry went to the seminary to say good bye to his schoolmates. While there, he was given special privileges for the entire afternoon, and it had felt delicious to be a respected soldier. In Washington, his spirits were also high. His regiment was fed and caressed at station after station until the Youth believed he was something special. He enjoyed being smiled at by girls and complimented by old men. Henry felt certain he would soon become a hero like those he had read about.
The Youth then commences the months of monotonous camp life. He is drilled and reviewed over and over again. He begins to dislike military life and regret the war. Then on guard one night, he has a conversation with one of the enemy across the stream; he is surprised to find him normal and likable and wonders how he will ever kill such men, so similar to himself. He begins to fear that he will run from battle and tries "mathematically to prove to himself that he would not." He must face the fact that he knows nothing of himself when it comes to his actions in battle.
The Tall Soldier (Jim Conklin) and a Loud Private (later identified as Wilson) are still arguing about the earlier rumor when they enter Henry's tent. The Youth asks the Tall Soldier if any one will run. Jim says it is likely that some will run if it is their first time out to fight. He adds that it is possible that the whole "kit and boodle will run.". The Youth asks Jim if he thinks he would run. Jim answers that if a whole lot of them started to run, he himself would probably join in; but if everybody stood and fought, he would probably stand and fight. The Youth feels gratitude for Jim's frank and truthful answer. He had feared that all the other soldiers possessed great confidence.
The opening sentence for the chapter sets the mood for the book. It is cold and foggy, and the soldiers are stretched out, as if bored. When they are told that they are soon to move out, there is arguing amongst them as to the truth of the rumor. Early in the chapter, the main character is also introduced. He is just called the Youth. In fact, Crane seldom gives a character's name. Instead, he provides descriptions of them (the Youth, the Tall Soldier, the Loud Soldier). In doing so, he creates an allegorical atmosphere. In an allegory, the focus is placed on types, not individuals. In using allegory, Crane accomplishes the goal of showing the experience of battle in very broad and general terms. He is not as interested in drawing out the uniqueness of individual heroes, as in showing the common experience of most youthful soldiers in war. In this way, he creates a realistic approach to war and avoids making a hero out of a soldier.
Much information is learned about Henry Fleming, the main character. He is a farm boy from rural New York. He has always had the illusion that war is grand and dreamed of being a battle hero; as a result, he eagerly enlisted to serve the Union during the Civil War. At first he felt very special about being a soldier as crowds cheered for him as he passed in parades and as old men complimented him for doing his duty. But months of drilling, reviewing, and seeing no action have made Henry wonder is there is any glory for a soldier anymore; he is beginning to understand the reality of war. When he hears the rumor that his regiment may possibly move out to battle, he goes away by himself to contemplate his thoughts. Henry is very afraid that he may not be man enough to stand up to the fighting and will run from the battle front, foreshadowing his future action and presenting the central conflict of the novel: the Youth vs. his own fear and shame.
In this first chapter, Crane establishes the realistic writing that will characterize the entire novel. The dialect of the soldiers realistically reflect their rural roots in the north. Crane captures the realistic emotions of a mother who is sending her son off to war. She acts bravely, saying it is the Lord's will, and sends Henry off with lots of maternal, practical advice; but when the Youth actually departs, she cries silent tears. There is also realism in Henry's thoughts and actions. Troubled by how he will react in battle, he goes off by himself to contemplate his deep inner thoughts. He is comforted by the Tall Soldier who says a lot of inexperienced soldiers will run from fighting during their first battle; at least, Henry does not feel he is so alone.