The Red Badge of Courage : Novel Summary: Chapter 11-12
The noise of the battle grows louder and Henry watches a column of retreating men and wagons. Because they are retreating, he feels a kind of vindication of his own actions. Then he sees a column of infantry moving in the other direction, toward the battle. This fills him with misery. He feels he can never be like these men, who are filled with glory. But then for a few moments, he wants to join them, and he visualizes himself doing great deeds on the battlefield. Then he realizes how difficult such a course of action would be—he has no rifle, and does not know where his regiment is. His mind goes this way and that, until he abandons his plan to return to battle. At about this time he becomes conscious of the many ailments that afflict him. He has a raging thirst, every bone in his body aches, and he is hungry. He becomes even more despondent, and believes that he will never become a hero. But he still seeks moral vindication. He reasons that if his army has been defeated, this could have advantages for him. Whole regiments would be shattered and scattered; many brave men would have been forced to desert. He would then be able to appear as just like one of them—even better in fact, he reasons, since his superior powers of perception had enabled him to see the coming defeat much earlier than others, and to take the only appropriate action. Then his mind turns again, and he regards himself as a villain and wishes he was dead. He convinces himself that it is not possible that his army should be defeated, and he tries to think up a plausible story he could take back to his regiment to explain his absence. But he cannot invent a story that does not have holes in it, and he imagines the derision he will face from his comrades if he returns.
Henry encounters more retreating soldiers coming fast in his direction. Soon he is in the midst of them. The scene is chaotic. Henry tries to talk to one of the men, but the man is in a rage and he hits Henry on the head with his rifle. Henry collapses on the ground and rises only with great difficulty. His head is bleeding. The scene is still chaotic, and he moves away from it. He can hear the sounds of a huge battle taking place and he hurries on as dusk comes, worrying about the wound he has sustained. His head feels swollen, and he gets very weary. Another soldier sees him and starts to walk with him. He is friendly, asks Henry a lot of questions and talks a lot, telling stories of the battle. He finds out which regiment Henry is in, and guides him back to it.
In these chapters Henry’s mind swings from one extreme to another. He has no stable point of reference. He does not know how he should think of himself, so he fluctuates between moral justifications of his act and bitter self-condemnation. He fully realizes the difficult position he is in, because he will surely be found out by his men if he should return to his regiment. At this point he is like a leaf in a breeze. He has fallen from the main branch of the tree and the wind now takes him wherever it will. He is no longer in control of his own life. He does not know who he is or what his role in life is to be. It is the lowest point in his fortunes.
The soldier who helps Henry back to his regiment is never named. Henry does not even see his face. Since Henry’s return to his own regiment is the beginning of his rehabilitation, the incident with the friendly, unnamed soldier suggests that even in the midst of this terrible situation, a kind of mysterious grace is operating in Henry’s life. He is to be given a second chance.