Summary and Analysis
Henry continues his flight from the front line even after he learns that his comrades have repelled the charge of the enemy. As he continues to retreat, he rationalizes his flight by first suggesting that his comrades were fools to stay and fight. Indeed, if they weren't wise enough to see that their position was going to be overrun, wasn't he just being wiser to run? According to his reasoning, his flight was the wise thing to do. As his retreat continues, he becomes angrier with his regiment, and he reinforces his anger by mentally criticizing his comrades for their willingness to stay.
He further rationalizes his retreat when he sees a squirrel scamper away from him as he moves through the forest. He thinks that all creatures in nature move to safety when their existence is threatened. As a result, he rationalizes that he was only doing the natural thing when he fled because he feared that his existence was in question.
As he moves further away from the front, he sees a thicket which might offer him some protection. He squeezes through the branches, and he comes face to face with a dead soldier. Henry immediately backs out of the thicket and continues his retreat.
In this chapter, Crane develops Henry's character by allowing him to rationalize his behavior. After he retreats from the battle and the wild fear that caused him to run, he returns to a state of reason and relative stability. Henry dismisses any notion that his running was not the right thing to do by rationalizing that his comrades were fools to stay and die. Henry is angry with his comrades when he learns that they were not annihilated, but, rather, were victorious in battle. Henry assumes that they are fools to continue to press their luck.
Henry rationalizes his behavior by thinking that his decision to run in the face of an overwhelming enemy force (at least in his mind) was the only rational decision he could make because, by taking this action, he would be available to fight and continue his duty another day while his comrades would be dead. The fact that this annihilation did not happen can be attributed only to luck, according to Henry's reasoning.
In his isolation, Henry attempts to find justification for his actions in nature. Henry contemplates that even the smallest of nature's creatures (in this chapter, a squirrel) knows when to run for safety. Shouldn't the most intelligent of nature's creatures, a human being, do the same? The reader should note Henry's decision to rationalize his behavior when the behavior is outside the norm; his ability to rationalize his actions becomes important later in the novel.
As Henry flees from the chaos of war, Crane makes clear that nature is still, and is always, at peace even while its most intelligent creature, man, can be agitated, uncertain, and at war. Indeed, as Henry retreats, he observes the beauty and tranquility of many dimensions of nature. Nature's peace prevails even amid the noise, disruption, and death, all unnatural behaviors, on the battlefield. This contrast of the tranquility of nature and the agitated actions of man serves to heighten Henry's mental plight.