The Red Badge of Courage attempts to recreate the combat experiences of a young, frightened soldier in the American Civil War. Henry Fleming, the protagonist, has never seen a real battle and worries about how he will behave under pressure. Crane’s novel has been praised ever since it first appeared in print as highly realistic in its presentation of the psychology of a young man facing injury and possible death. One of the best American short novels, Crane’s work vividly presents some of the horrors, both physical and psychological, that soldiers encounter in battle.
The battle of Chancellorsville in northern Virginia, waged from May 1 to May 3, 1863, seems to have been Crane’s model for the fictional battle in The Red Badge of Courage. The action of the novel follows that of the original conflict-a Confederate victory-quite closely. Chancellorsville is not mentioned in the novel, nor is General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, the leader of the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville. At one point in the novel, though, Crane does name the Rappahannock River, which separates the two armies. The real setting of The Red Badge of Courage, however, is the consciousness of Henry Fleming. The battle, his fellow Union soldiers, and the landscape are all seen through his eyes. His attitudes, which change frequently, determine what he and the reader see.