The Red Badge of Courage : Novel Summary: Chapter 18-19
During the lull in their portion of the battle, Henry and Wilson go in search of a stream in order to find some drinking water. They do not find a stream and start to make their way back. They take the opportunity to observe the battle, which continues fiercely. They overhear the general of their division talking with another officer. The general fears the enemy will break through at a place called Whiterside, unless he can get reinforcements. The officer says he can spare none of his men except those of the 304th regiment, which is the regiment to which Henry and Wilson belong. The officer refers to them as “mule drivers,” because they were recruited from farms. The general approves the plan, and says as the officer rides off that he does not expect many of these “mule drivers” to return from the tough mission he has given them. Henry feels angry at the impersonal, indifferent way such things are decided. He and Wilson return to their regiment and give the news that they will shortly be asked to make a charge. The men are skeptical at first of how Henry and Wilson know this, but then they accept it. The officers bustle around, preparing the regiment for battle.
The charge begins. Henry plays his part with fierce determination. The regiment takes many casualties as the battle intensifies, but the men continue to advance. After some while they tire and the advance halts. They continue to take casualties. The lieutenant and the other officers urge them forward again. They advance into withering fire from the enemy, and then halt again. The lieutenant bellows that they cannot stay there; if they do they will all be killed. He tries to force Henry to continue the advance. At first Henry protests, but then he, the lieutenant and Wilson rush on ahead of the other men. They urge the others to follow, and soon the whole regiment is on the move again, facing intense hostile fire. The sergeant who carries the flag is killed, and Henry and Wilson grab the flag from his corpse.
These chapters are full of insights into the strange, contradictory nature of war. Henry for example notes with distaste the impersonal, unfeeling way in which a general is willing to sacrifice men. He thinks they are being used just like brooms to sweep up the woods. No attention is paid to their humanity. And yet when the battle starts and the men advance, Henry feels an unusual sense of being fully alive. All his senses function in a very acute way. It is almost as if he is lifted to another state of consciousness, so clear does everything become:
It seemed to the youth that he saw everything. Each blade of the green grass was bold and clear. He thought that he was aware of every change in the thin, transparent vapor that floated idly in sheets. The brown or gray trunks of the trees showed each roughness of their surfaces (ch. 19, p. 119).
Henry also seems to comprehend everything about his comrades as they go into battle. And yet, curiously, he is also ignorant. He does not know why he is there. He is in a strange state of knowledge and ignorance at the same time, and he notes this condition in the other men too. They too find the situation incomprehensible, but they are caught up in a kind of group consciousness that lifts them beyond selfishness and makes them a formidable fighting force. Beyond the reach of reason, they are more like animals, acting instinctively.
There is also great heroism in this horrific environment. Henry as well as Wilson emerge as men of great courage and leadership. There can be few moment in literature as moving as when the two of them wrest the Union flag from the dead sergeant. But the moment is also grotesque, as the description of the dead sergeant shows. This is a realistic war novel, not an exercise in sentimental patriotism.