This novel documents Henry's growth and maturity as a soldier through the changes in his personality and behavior. During this transition, Henry's emotions run the gamut from glory to fear to depression to anger to exhilaration to courage to honor. His personality and behavior move from innocence to experience, in essence from doubt to duty.
Henry's maturing process occurs very quickly. In the span of just a few days, Henry experiences a lifetime's worth of growth — from his enlisting for self-centered reasons of glory, to the exhilaration of his first battle, to his running from his second battle for fear of being killed, and, ultimately, to his facing the enemy and leading a charge as he becomes one of the bravest soldiers in his regiment. Several examples from the novel illuminate the changes which take place in Henry's character and in their relationship to the themes of doubt and duty.
Henry's confidence, a confidence somewhat related to an understanding of duty, but also based on the curiosity of youth, is addressed early in the novel. Henry is confident that war will bring him untold glory. Henry's confidence is not shaken by his mother's "impregnable" concerns, so he proceeds with his plan to enlist despite her wishes.
In Chapter 2, however, the focus of Henry's character development moves quickly to Henry's doubts and fears as the regiment moves closer to battle. His thoughts jump from longing for home to conjuring up monster images to describe common occurrences. Fear almost consumes Henry. Henry's doubts continue as he reacts to his environment — both the land and the people. At one point, his fears become so great that "he had concluded that it would be better to get killed directly and end his troubles."
When Henry and his comrades do finally engage in battle, Henry faces the enemy and fires repeatedly, and, eventually, the enemy charge is repelled. Henry finally overcomes a portion of his fears and gains confidence as he works with the other soldiers of his regiment to hold the line. With the help of his fellow soldiers, Henry stands his ground and makes some movements toward confidence and maturity.
Henry's newfound confidence is short-lived. The realities of battle intervene and cause his fear and doubt to resurface. Henry moves from a state of euphoria after repelling the enemy's charge in the first battle to a state of panic at the beginning of a second battle. When the enemy charges, Henry's fears take control. When the soldier next to him drops his rifle and runs, Henry's ability to reason vanishes, and he runs. He abandons any thoughts of honor and duty and sinks into a state of total self-concern and immaturity. In his state of disgrace, he attempts to rationalize his retreat to make himself feel better.
Henry remains in this state of self-absorption through some critical events in the novel: Even Jim Conklin's death can't jar him out of his thoughts about his own well-being. He also abandons the tattered soldier because he fears the man's questions about his head wound; he commits a despicably selfish act rather than face his own lack of courage. In fact, his self-absorption is so deep that it stops him from rejoining the fighting, even though he wants to.
Henry's accidental head wound is not the red badge of courage that he longs to acquire; rather, it becomes a shield that he uses to protect the lies he has built around himself. Henry only begins to emerge from his shell of self-absorption and fear when he recognizes Wilson's weakness in giving him a bunch of letters to hold. On this strange foundation, Henry's confidence for battle begins to take shape.
Henry's new-found confidence allows him to face a tough reality: that as a soldier, he must kill or be killed. His confidence allows him to feel anger toward the enemy, rather than fear. At this point, Henry, if not a hero, is certainly a courageous, confident soldier. His confidence gains such strength that it begins to influence the other soldiers. When Henry assumes the role of flag-bearer for the regiment, he becomes a symbol of bravery and courage. His transformation from child to man, from cowardly enlistee to brave veteran is complete.