Summary: Chapter XVIII
As the Union troops rest, the fighting deeper in the forest
intensifies until the air is parched with smoke and the battle-roar
drowns out all other sounds. During a sudden lull in the battle,
the men hear one of their comrades, Jimmie Rogers, crying out in
pain. Thinking there is a stream nearby, Wilson offers to go for
water and Henry accompanies him. They fail to find a stream, but
reach a place from which they can see a large portion of the battle
as it unfolds. They see dark masses of blue troops slowly gather
into formation. They watch as a general nearly tramples a wounded
man. As the general and his staff pass by, they hear the commanders
discussing how best to fortify a weak position. The general asks
one officer which unit he can spare; the officer replies that the
only regiment he does not need is the 304th—Henry’s
regiment—because its members “fight like a lot ’a mule drivers.”
Summary: Chapter XIX
Henry and Wilson, who had believed their regiment
to be unstoppable, are shocked to hear it insulted. They are further
stunned to hear the general tell the officer that he expects most
of the 304th to be killed in the coming attack.
The two friends hurry back to their comrades with the news that
they are about to charge. As the officers organize the men into
marching formation, Henry and Wilson consider what they have heard.
They do not taint the resolve of the other soldiers with their pathetic
news, but instead keep the secret to themselves. Nevertheless, they
prepare for the charge with quiet resignation.
The men lumber forward toward a line of enemy soldiers.
Henry sees men pounded by bullets, splayed and tumbling in grotesque shapes.
As the men charge, the regiment comes to a halt twice, until the
lieutenant once again spurs them into motion. The bullets continue
to fly and Henry notices the regiment’s flag flying before him. He
begins to follow it as if it were a sacred talisman. Suddenly, the color
sergeant—the soldier responsible for carrying the flag, is hit and
falls to his knees. Henry and Wilson pry the flag from his dead fingers
and continue to charge.
Analysis: Chapters XVIII–XIX
In these chapters, and for the rest of the novel, Crane
focuses less on thematic exploration and more on the graphic depiction
of battle. Henry’s character has endured its initial shock and is
now prepared to complete its development from innocence into experience,
from vanity into self-assurance, from cowardice into courage. The
ensuing battle proves the testing ground for Henry’s character and enables
the realization of this journey.
The descriptions of war in these late chapters are a marvel, becoming
increasingly violent and strikingly poetic as the book nears its
The little flames of rifles leaped from [the
clump of trees]. The song of the bullets was in the air and shells
snarled among the tree-tops. One tumbled directly into the middle
of a hurrying group and exploded in crimson fury. There was an instant’s spectacle
of a man, almost over it, throwing up his hands to shield his eyes. Other men, punched by bullets, fell in grotesque agonies. The
regiment left a coherent trail of bodies.
The dramatic, repulsive quality of this passage illustrates
man’s pitiable smallness in the face of overpowering, all-consuming
war, but simultaneously hints at the heroism that simply facing
such cataclysmic horror requires.
The novel transfers its attention from the
psychology of Henry to that of the regiment as a whole. As the men
fight together and grow experienced in combat, the narrative begins
to characterize them as a single individual: “The regiment snorted
and blew. Among some stolid trees it began to falter and hesitate.”
Henry does remain the central focus of the novel. However, rather
than analyze his every thought and feeling, Crane emphasizes his
role in the group of men around him, even though he does not experience
the same group-consciousness that he felt during his first battle.
This shift is a moral triumph as it marks a departure from Henry’s
self-possessed, narcissistic tendencies. As Henry is freed from
the agonies of considering his every move, so too is the reader.
As Henry gives himself fully to the battle—displaying a newfound
dedication to his fellow soldiers and, therefore—one witnesses his
formerly adolescent character, once so selfishly focused, bloom
into that of a generous and honorable man.
The underlying idea is that men in dangerous situations
form close bonds and often act and think as one, a theme Crane explored explicitly
in his story “The Open Boat.” Here, he explores this idea indirectly
through Henry’s relationships with Wilson and the lieutenant, and
by the shift in his sensitivities and priorities. Where he once
was thin-skinned about his own prowess, he now takes offense at
insults directed at the regiment as a whole, as when the derisive officer
labels him and his companions “mule drivers.”
The relevance of noise and silence comes to the foreground
in these later chapters as the intensity of battle heightens. The
novel is alive with the sounds of combat, which Crane variously
describes as “a terrific fracas” and “splintering and blaring.”
Toward the end of the novel, however, a silence seeps into the atmosphere,
anticipating the lovely, almost idyllic sense of peace with which
the novel closes. Wilson transforms from “the loud soldier” into
a man who shows “a quiet belief in his purpose and his abilities.”
Henry eventually reaches a similar maturity, no longer craving the
loud rumors and reassurances of other men. He soon leaves the frantic
and empty chatter of boyhood behind for a quieter brand of manhood.