The Red Badge of Courage : Novel Summary

The story begins at the camp of the Union army during the Civil War. The men have been at camp for a long time. A tall soldier tells his comrades he is convinced they are about to move on the enemy, which is camped the other side of the river. Some men disagree, and there is a spirited debate. A young private listens to the debate, and then retreats to his hut to be alone. He is full of anticipation that he is about to participate in his first battle. He is a romantic, idealist young man, raised on a farm, who has dreamed of battles all his life. He had wanted to enlist in the Union army, but his mother discouraged him. Eventually he enlisted, against his mother’s wishes. Reluctantly, she lets him go. His friends all admire him for enlisting. On the way to Washington with his regiment, he is treated like a hero. Following that, he had to put up with months of monotony in a camp, an endless round of drills and reviews. He sees almost nothing of the enemy, and doubts whether he will ever be a part of a real battle. He listens to the stories of veterans, but he does not know how much to believe. He suddenly thinks that perhaps in a battle, he might run away. This question worries him.
The tall soldier and the loud private he is arguing with join the youth in the hut. The youth, whose name is Henry Fleming, asks the tall soldier directly whether there is going to be a battle, and the soldier assures him there will be. Henry asks the soldier’s opinion about how the regiment will perform, since it is composed mostly of men who have never been in a battle. The soldier says that some may run away, but in general they will fight well. Henry asks the tall soldier, whose name is Jim Conklin, whether he had ever thought he might run himself. Jim replies that if a lot of men started to run, he probably would as well. But if everyone stood and fought, he would too. Henry is reassured by Jim’s statement.
The first chapter sets the scene and introduces the main characters. By not giving any specific details of place or time, or even stating directly which army Henry is a member of, the author gives the scene a general rather than specific significance. He intends to explore the psychological aspects of war as it is experienced by the ordinary soldier, so the generality of the descriptions carry significance beyond their time and place. (The novel is in fact loosely based on the Civil War battle of Chancellorville in May, 1863, although nowhere is this stated.) The author’s desire to create a universal effect is also seen in the way the characters in this chapter are described. For the most part, they are the “tall soldier,” the “loud private,” and “the youth,” rather than being given specific names.
This chapter also shows that Henry has reached a crucial point in his life. As a young boy, he had thought of war as a romantic, glorious enterprise, although he also believed that it was something that belonged to the pages of history, not something that could happen in the present. When the Civil War breaks out, at first he does not take it seriously, and thinks that no war could match the heroics he has read about in ancient Greek books. Men had been civilized and had lost the savage spirit that used to animate them. But now war has come, and he has enlisted, he will begin to discover a lot about himself that he had previously not even thought about. The key issue is how he will behave in battle. He is disturbed by thoughts that he may run away. The thoughts he has on that subject suggest that the novel will be about the mind of a young soldier as he faces combat for the first time. It is the psychological aspects of war that will be the focus, not so much the physical events, although they will be vividly described also.