About The Red Badge of Courage


Readers of The Red Badge of Courage will note that a sense of confusion and cloudiness pervades the novel. Crane creates this impression intentionally to evoke both the political and military haze that characterized the Civil War, the setting for the novel.

Politically, the Civil War was far from a cut-and-dried conflict to determine the issue of slavery. Two larger issues clouded the political atmosphere of the time, contributing to the division of the Union: states' rights (the southern states considered the institution of slavery one of those rights) and economic development in the South.

The South felt that each state was a sovereign entity and had the right to conduct its business (including having the option to hold slaves) without interference from the federal government. The North, of course, did not support this view. The North believed that all states were subject to the laws of the federal government as determined by each states' representatives operating under the guidance of the Constitution.

Economically, the South was operating in an economy that focused on agriculture, specifically on cotton. As long as the cotton markets in England and France, where textiles were produced, held firm, the Southern states producing cotton could retain their way of life. The most-recognized institution in this way of life was the plantation, a farming operation, generally focusing on cotton production, requiring large numbers of people to do the work necessary to turn a profit. Even though machinery, including the cotton gin, was available to help with the planting and the harvesting of commodities, the labor provided by slaves was essential for both small farmers and large plantation owners to operate their businesses successfully. Even southerners who opposed slavery on moral grounds recognized that, economically, they could not operate their farms without this help.

Militarily, the war was often literally fought in a haze. The weapons used by troops on both sides produced a discharge of smoke when fired. As a result, the meadows, forests, roads, and fields, which provided the theater for many battles and skirmishes over the course of several days' fighting, were constantly cloaked in smoke. (Crane refers to this hazy smoke often throughout The Red Badge of Courage.) In addition, the slow methods of communication available at that time often made it difficult for either side to tell if a battle was being lost or won. This added to the confusion that characterized the Civil War battlefield.

As for the actual fighting of the war, there were few major victories achieved by either army. Battles often simply reduced the number of men available to each side to keep fighting. This was a war of small battles and skirmishes. The strategy of the commanding officers on both sides was to begin with superior numbers of men, to lose men during the engagement, but hopefully to have more men left than their opponent at the end of the day — and, ultimately, at the end of the war.

Because the Union forces of the North had superior numbers and the potential to replace and to resupply their troops much more efficiently than the Confederate forces of the South, it was inevitable that the sheer weight of numbers would eventually lead to the end of the Civil War: Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865.