The Red Badge of Courage : Novel Summary: Chapter 13-15
Henry makes his way apprehensively to towards his old comrades. He fears the reception he may receive. The first soldier he encounters is his friend Wilson, who greets him warmly. He had assumed that Henry had been killed. Henry makes up a convincing tale about being separated from the regiment, being involved in terrible fighting, and getting shot. A corporal arrives and takes care of Henry. He dresses the wound and says it appears that Henry was grazed by a cannon ball. After the corporal leaves him, Henry sits on the ground observing the scene around him. Then Wilson arrives, and tries to help Henry by tying a wet, cool handkerchief around his swollen head. Wilson then gives Henry his own blankets, and will not listen to Henry’s protests about his generosity. Henry sleeps.
He wakes in the morning and already there is a distant sound of battle. There are bugle calls and drum rolls. Wilson watches out for Henry’s needs as they gather around the camp fire for breakfast. Henry notices how much his formerly loud and aggressive friend has matured. He is quieter, more confident, less ready to quarrel. Wilson says the officers believe they have the rebels where they want them. He adds that he thinks they gave the opposing army a defeat the previous day. Henry replies that from where he was, it looked the other way round. Then he remembers Jim Conklin, and tells Wilson about his death. A quarrel springs up between three soldiers, and Wilson goes across to become the peacemaker. When he returns he comments to Henry that initially he had thought the regiment had lost half its men in the battle. But it turns out they had only been scattered, and were wandering around or fighting with other regiments. Most of them had now returned.
Henry remembers the package Wilson gave to him, when the latter had spoken with self-pity about what he believed would be his imminent death in battle. But he decides not to give the package back to Wilson straightaway. He fears that at some point Wilson will expect Henry to tell him his adventures of the previous day, and the truth may come out. He realizes that his possession of the package gives him some power over Wilson, so he resolves to keep it. If anyone will be the subject of derision, he determines it will be Wilson, not himself. Now he considers himself safe from discovery, his self-confidence and self-respect return. He does not fear what may happen in the forthcoming battle. He again reassures himself that even though he had fled the previous day, he had done so with discretion and dignity, not like the other deserters. As Henry thinks these thoughts, Wilson approaches him, and in an embarrassed way asks for his package back. Henry does not make it difficult for him, and congratulates himself on his generosity. He feels superior to his friend.
It appears from the comments made by the corporal, and later by Wilson, that the number of men from Henry’s regiment who ran from the battle was high. This is clear from the corporal’s statement that he thought at first they had lost forty-two men, but many of them are now returning. He does not draw the conclusion that the men deserted. Nor does Wilson, when in a separate incident he says to Henry: “Th’regiment lost over half th’ men yesterday. . . . I thought a’ course they was all dead, but, laws, they kep a-comin’ back last night until it seems, after all, we didn’t lose but a few.” He goes on to explain that the regiment had been scattered, and many of the men believed lost had in fact been fighting with other regiments—just as Henry had done.
The irony here is rich. Not only does Wilson not doubt Henry’s story, it seems not to occur to him that the men who were scattered in fact deserted. Although the truth that some men in the regiment are cowards is plain, no one is willing to draw that conclusion. Of course, this is very convenient for Henry and plays a part in restoring his confidence. He guesses he will not be found out.
The maturing of Wilson after the battle is notable. The experience has changed him for the better. He no longer has to prove himself and is a better man as a result. Henry is observant enough to note the change. It is ironic, then, that Henry maneuvers himself into a position where he can feel superior to Wilson. This is the incident with the package. The reader will hardly feel that Henry is justified in his attitude. Wilson may have had a moment of self-pity but at least he did his duty. But now it is he who feels shame rather than Henry, who is busy puffing himself up with images of his own superiority and imagining all the great war stories he will tell, with himself at the center, when he returns home to family and friends.