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Henry Fleming, usually referred to as the Youth, is the protagonist and central focus of The Red Badge of Courage. All the other characters in the book are there to serve Henry in some way, either by prompting him to action or reflection or by being a comparison or contrast to him. Crane devotes the entire space of the novel to showing how the war affects Henry and causes him to change.
The Youth is a typical young American brought up in the nineteenth century. Raised on a farm in rural New York, he is not afraid of hard work and appreciates the wonders of nature. He has been taught to equate manhood with valor, to dream of the glories of warfare, and to be unthinkingly patriotic. As a result, when the Civil War breaks out, he volunteers to join the Union forces. His mother hates that her son is going off to war, but accepts it as "God's will." She sends him off with quiet tears and lots of motherly advice.
By nature, Henry has a very reflective temperament and a sharp, sensitive mind. In the army, he becomes an introspective loner, rarely interacting with the other soldiers. He isolates himself to think about home, which he misses greatly, and to ponder whether he will be adequate for battle. His active mind imagines that the enemy is a huge monster with extraordinary powers, a picture that is much worse that the actuality.
Because the Youth is established as introspective, Crane can explore the terrain of his interior world and look into his deepest thoughts. Henry has been influenced by reading Homer and learning about the heroes of ancient Greece. He imagines himself as a Homeric hero, accomplishing great deeds. In the army, however, he sees no heroics around him; instead he is haunted by the everyday boredom of routine military life, the cruelty and indifference of his military officers, and his fears that he cannot live up to a brave performance in battle.
In his first real battle, the Youth's greatest fear comes true. At the first charge from the enemy, his regiment becomes scattered and disorganized. Seeing some other men leave the battlefront, Henry throws down his rifle and runs. The rest of the novel shows Henry's reaction to his guilt and shame over this desertion. At first he worries about how he will ever find his regiment again and about his cowardice being discovered. He grows obsessed by fear. Needing to do something to protect himself, he joins a procession of the wounded. This simply makes matters worse for several reasons. The men injured in the fighting make him feel guiltier than ever for fleeing. When the Tattered Soldier asks him about his wound, it is almost more than he can bear. At this point in the novel, Henry would rather have an injury than almost anything else in the world.
Ironically, Henry soon receives a wound -- but not in battle. When he sees his troops retreating, he grabs a fleeing soldier by the arm in order to find out information about what is happening. The frightened soldier hits the Youth on his head with his rifle. Henry falls to the ground in agonizing pain; but he now has his "red badge of courage," which changes everything for the guilt-ridden young soldier. Because he is injured, he now feels he can rejoin his regiment and hide his "sin."
When he returns to his camp, the Youth is warmly greeted by the others, especially Wilson, who has previously been a loud- mouthed and boastful soldier. They tend his wound and believe that he has been grazed with a cannon ball. The kindness and consideration that he is given begins the change in Henry. He finds himself feeling a part of the regiment and carrying on casual conversations for the first time. When the regiment is ordered to march towards a charge on the enemy, Henry is very fearful about how he will react in the next battle. He covers his fear by boasting and being loud and argumentative.
When the battle begins, Henry is swept up into the fighting and holds his own. He even becomes an encourager to the other soldiers, pressing them forward. The more he fights, the stronger he feels. When the charge is over and his regiment is successful, the other soldiers admire his courage and his lieutenant praises his battle fever. In later fighting, Henry seizes the flag from the dying standard bearer. In turn, he marches, without fear, at the front of the line and urges his comrades onward. His fear about fighting is truly behind him.
At the end of the novel, Henry reflects on his experiences in the war. Even though he is still ashamed for fleeing from the first battle and deserting the Tattered Soldier in his time of need, the Youth has matured enough to forgive himself. In spite of his weaknesses, he accepts himself as a man and is proud of his accomplishments in the war effort. Crane has succeeded in showing how Henry Fleming has totally changed as a result of his battle experiences.
Wilson is often referred to as the Loud Soldier or the Friend of the Youth. At the beginning of the novel, he is an extremely loud and boastful soldier, claiming that he will be able single-handedly to beat the opposing army. He is also argumentative, picking fights with his fellow soldiers. Before his first battle, Wilson suddenly grows afraid and fears dying. He gives a packet of letters to the Youth to deliver to his family, for he is sure he will be killed.
After the first battles, Wilson totally changes, as evidenced when Henry rejoins the regiment. It is Wilson who tends the head wound of the Youth; he also offers him his "bed" to sleep in. Further proof that he has changed comes in the fact that he has become a peacemaker. When his fellow soldiers argue, he steps in to quiet them. The Youth is amazed by the positive changes he sees in his friend and begins to emulate his behavior. As a result, on the battlefield they become true comrades, fighting together.