The Red Badge of Courage : Novel Summary: Chapter 16-17
Henry’s regiment marches to some trenches to relieve another group of soldiers. The noise of various skirmishes is loud. Guns are roaring. Rumors spread that their army has been defeated. The regiment then marches through the woods, as Henry complains loudly about the incompetence of the generals. He and Wilson agree that the regiment fights hard. Wilson says they do not have any luck, and Henry persists in blaming the generals. But after another soldier makes a sarcastic remark to him, he feels threatened and keeps quiet. The troops halt in a clearing in the woods. They know a battle is imminent, and the lieutenant berates his men for arguing too much. There is rifle fire from the thicket in front of the regiment. The battle is upon them.
Henry fumes with rage and exasperation. He wants to rest, not fight. As he waits with his fingers on his rifle, he conceives a hatred for the enemy. As the battle gets underway, he is conscious only of this hate, and his desire to crush the enemy. He determines to hold his position whatever happens, and he fires his rifle with ferocity. He does not even notice when there is a lull in the battle. He stands alone, still firing. When the smoke clears he sees that the ground ahead of him is deserted. The enemy has retreated. The lieutenant offers him high praise, and his comrades look admiringly on him as a “war devil.” When Henry reflects on what has happened, he is struck by how easy it was for him. He had fought like a beast, and become a hero. But he knows nothing of how it had all happened. As for the other men in the regiment, they are jubilant, and celebrate their victory with pride.
Henry continues to discover more about himself. Earlier, after long pondering the question of how he would react in a battle, he had found he was capable of an act of cowardice. Now, he shows he is also capable of acting courageously. He is so intent on the battle that he loses all sense of danger and is barely conscious of what he is doing. He discovers for himself the truth of what he had been told before he had ever tasted combat: “The youth had been taught that a man became another thing in a battle. He saw his salvation in such a change.” This reflection comes in chapter 3, just before the battle in which Henry runs away. As a coward, Henry was like a condemned man. Now, after his feats on the battlefield, he is like a man who has been saved.
This section also marks the beginning of the bond that forms between Henry and the lieutenant. Earlier, Henry had regarded the lieutenant with distaste, as a crude man, quite the opposite of himself. But the lieutenant, whatever he may of thought of Henry, now regards him with admiration, saying that if he had ten thousand “wild cats” like Henry, he could win the war in less than a week.