Summary and Analysis
As the battle continues, it becomes clear to the officers of Henry's regiment that the troops can't stay in their present position. The officers decide to charge the enemy's position. The objective is to push the enemy away from the fence behind which they are hiding and firing. As quickly as the tired and dispirited regiment hears the command to charge, they respond with renewed strength and zeal. The charge is so successful that the enemy abandons its position, Wilson captures the enemy's flag, and four enemy troops are taken prisoner.
As the celebration of this successful charge of the regiment winds down, Henry sits down in some tall grass and leans his flag against the fence. Wilson, his friend, joins him in resting on the ground.
This chapter places the reader in Henry's mind as the decision to charge and the results of that decision unfold. Through Henry's eyes, the reader becomes a combatant. As the charge unfolds, the reader feels Henry's exhilaration and excitement as he and his comrades successfully complete their task. The reader experiences all the emotions, including reactions to suffering and death, associated with but one charge in this bloody war.
The men of Henry's regiment are in the full frenzy of battle, so much so that they seem to be propelled by a force outside themselves — the force of combined commitment to task and duty. Their charge, in the face of an apparently impossible task, is the ultimate act of bravery.
Henry has but one goal, the symbolic act of capturing the opposing regiment's flag. He seeks the flag not for personal glory, but because, "He was capable of profound sacrifices, a tremendous death." When the flag is captured, not by Henry, but with Henry's help, the reader sees that Henry is truly a hero.
Chapter 23 also gives the reader an intimate look at the enemy. Previously in the novel, the enemy is largely characterized as a monstrous, inhuman force. However, in this chapter, the reader sees, through Henry's eyes, the death of the Rebel flag bearer, a death struggle that is just as human as any that has been described in the book for a Union soldier. The reactions of the captured Rebel soldiers are also quite human — diverse and realistic. Clearly, Crane wants the reader to see that the dehumanization necessary to kill another human being is false and wrong. This realization makes the bloodshed on both sides of the conflict that much more tragic. At the same time, however, Crane clearly makes the point that a soldier must recognize his duty, even if this duty requires that he kill or be killed.