The Red Badge of Courage : Novel Summary: Chapter 20-22
Henry and Wilson, as they carry the flag, are forced to retreat with the rest of the regiment. They fall back to the trees for cover. Then, with their ranks much depleted, they begin marching again. Once more they come under heavy fire. They become discouraged and feel betrayed by their officers. Henry is filled with anger against the officer who described their regiment as “mule drivers.” He and the lieutenant try hard to rally the men. But as the battle intensifies again, the regiment is in disarray. Henry, as the new color-bearer, holds the flag up firmly. Suddenly, the enemy is close and advancing upon them, step by step. Against all the odds, the Union soldiers beat them back. The men dance with joy. Their enthusiasm returns and they feel a new pride in themselves.
In their part of the field there is a sudden stillness. The men feel free. They return to their own lines. Henry realizes that the distance they had covered was very small, and the battle must have lasted for only a short time. But he looks back with satisfaction at his own performance. He and the men then witness a confrontation between the officer who called them mule drivers and the colonel of the regiment. The officer says that if the men had advanced another hundred feet, it would have been a great effort. The colonel replies calmly that they advanced as far as they could. The officer rides away, and the lieutenant tells the colonel that anyone who says their men did not fight hard is a fool. The men are resentful at how the officer disparaged their efforts. Henry and Wilson discuss the injustice of it. Then another man brings some news. It turns out that when the colonel met the lieutenant, he wanted to know the name of the man who had carried the flag. After the lieutenant tells him, and praises Henry, the colonel says Henry is a good man to have. The lieutenant also has words of praise for Wilson. The colonel says they should both be major generals. When they hear this, Henry and Wilson are embarrassed, but secretly they are thrilled to be recognized and honored in such a way.
In the lull in his regiment’s fighting, Henry takes the opportunity to observe the battles that are taking place elsewhere. Waves of troops engage each other in all directions. The noise is deafening. Then Henry’s own regiment is in action again, and performs with great valor. Henry is once again the standard-bearer. Casualties are high.
Henry’s experience has come full circle. When he first thought about war, as a young man before he even enlisted, his mind was filled with romantic, idealistic notions of glory. He imagined himself performing heroically in battle. Of course, when he enlisted, he found out that war was not such a glamorous adventure. He got bored marching for no apparent reason and sitting around in camps. War seemed the opposite of glory, and his former ideas foolish. Then of course came his moment of cowardice on the battlefield and his resulting confusion as he tried to live with the knowledge of how he had behaved when the pressure was on. He also had many thoughts about the insignificance and smallness of the individual in the face of such huge collective action as a war.
But then, for reasons that Henry never fully understands, he
genuinely becomes the hero he had once dreamed of being. He even discovers that the lowly infantryman is not always anonymous. His name is conveyed to his general, and he is praised by name. Now he can tell those war stories he imagined himself relating in chapter 15, when he had nothing at all to boast of, and they will be true. He really has been a “central figure in blazing scenes.”