The Red Badge of Courage : Novel Summary: Chapter 23-24
The officers call for a charge, and the men readily agree, even though the regiment has been severely weakened. They charge across a field toward a fence, behind which lies the enemy. Henry goes ahead with the flag, feeling joy and strength, and unconcerned about the bullets flying around him. He is in a kind of “wild battle madness.” Some of the enemy run; others hold fast. Henry sets his heart on capturing the enemy flag, but it is Wilson who accomplishes this task, immediately after the enemy standard-bearer is killed. The regiment drives the enemy back and takes four prisoners.
The battle wanes. The men of Henry’s regiment march back to join the other Union forces. Their part in the battle is over. Henry reflects on his experience. He studies his successes and his failures. He rejoices in his feats of courage, and revels in the respect he has gained from his comrades. But he cannot forget his moment of shame, or the image of the tattered soldier deserted and left to wander in a field. He is haunted by this, and feels he may never forget it. But gradually he is able to put it behind him. He feels that as a result of the battle he has attained manhood. He looks forward to a more tranquil life.
The final charge is a stirring affair. The two armies are shown fighting at closer range than earlier; the struggle becomes more personal. As earlier descriptions have also shown, the individual soldier in battle is lifted beyond rational feeling into a realm of fanatical dedication. Henry feels like a “daring spirit of a savage religion-mad” (p. 141), and the men plunge on in an “exhibition of sublime recklessness.” The capturing of the enemy flag is a fitting climax to the battle, although the honor goes to Wilson not Henry.
As a result of his war experience, Henry reaches a new maturity, just as Wilson had done earlier. He knows life is not all glory or shame, success or failure. It is a mixture. He has learned that he can redeem himself even after a grievous failing. He has also learned what it is to be a part of something bigger than himself. Although he felt joy in battle, he seems also to be aware that peace is more precious. Looking back on his experience, he views war as a “red sickness of battle,” a “sultry nightmare” which had turned him into an animal. He sees life more in a more balanced way now. The emphasis is on the “quiet manhood” he has attained, sturdy but not over-assertive. War has not corrupted him; it has made him wiser.