Home » The Red Badge » Imagery in The Red Badge of Courage

Imagery in The Red Badge of Courage

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on
the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to
tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. It cast its eyes upon the roads, which were growing
from long troughs of liquid mud to proper thoroughfares. A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its
banks, purled at the army’s feet; and at night, when the stream had become of a sorrowful blackness,
one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile camp-fires set in the low brows of distant

Once a certain tall soldier developed virtues and went resolutely to wash a shirt. He came flying
back from a brook waving his garment bannerlike. He was swelled with a tale he had heard from a
reliable friend, who had heard it from a truthful cavalryman, who had heard it from his trustworthy
brother, one of the orderlies at division headquarters. He adopted the important air of a herald in red
“We’re goin’ t’ move t’morrah–sure,” he said pompously to a group in the company street. “We’re
goin’ ‘way up the river, cut across, an’ come around in behint ’em.”
To his attentive audience he drew a loud and elaborate plan of a very brilliant campaign. When he
had finished, the blue-clothed men scattered into small arguing groups between the rows of squat
brown huts.

A negro teamster who had been dancing upon a cracker box with the hilarious
encouragement of twoscore soldiers was deserted. He sat mournfully down. Smoke drifted lazily
from a multitude of quaint chimneys.
“It’s a lie! that’s all it is–a thunderin’ lie!” said another private loudly. His smooth face was flushed,
and his hands were thrust sulkily into his trouser’s pockets. He took the matter as an affront to him.
“I don’t believe the derned old army’s ever going to move. We’re set. I’ve got ready to move eight
times in the last two weeks, and we ain’t moved yet.”
The tall soldier felT called upon to defend the truth of a rumor he himself had introduced. He and the
loud one came near to fighting over it.

A corporal began to swear before the assemblage. He had just put a costly board floor in his house,
sively to the comfort of his environment because he had felt that the army might start on the march at
any moment. Of late, however, he had been impressed that they were in a sort of eternal camp.
Many of the men engaged in a spirited debate. One outlined in a peculiarly lucid manner all the plans
of the commanding general. He was opposed by men who advocated that there were other plans of
campaign. They clamored at each other, numbers making futile bids for the popular attention.
Meanwhile, the soldier who had fetched the rumor bustled about with much importance. He was
“Ah, what yeh talkin’ about? How yeh know it is?”
“Well, yeh kin b’lieve me er not, jest as yeh like. I don’t care a hang.”

There was much food for thought in the manner in which he replied. He came near to convincing
them by disdaining to produce proofs. They grew much excited over it.
There was a youthful private who listened with eager ears to the words of the tall soldier and to the
varied comments of his comrades. After receiving a fill of discussions concerning marches and
attacks, he went to his hut and crawled through an intricate hole that served it as a door. He wished
to be alone with some new thoughts that had lately come to him.
He lay down on a wide bunk that stretched across the end of the room. In the other end, cracker
boxes were made to serve as furniture.

They were grouped about the fireplace. A picture from an
illustrated weekly was upon the log walls, and three rifles were paralleled on pegs. Equipments hung
on handy projections, and some tin dishes lay upon a small pile of firewood. A folded tent was
serving as a roof. The sunlight, without, beating upon it, made it glow a light yellow shade. A small
window shot an oblique square of whiter light upon the cluttered floor. The smoke from the fire at
times neglected the clay chimney and wreathed into the room, and this flimsy chimney of clay and
sticks made endless threats to set ablaze the whole establishment.

The youth was in a little trance of astonishment. So they were at last going to fight. On the morrow,
perhaps, there would be a battle, and he would be in it. For a time he was obliged to labor to make
himself believe. He could not accept with assurance an omen that he was about to mingle in one of
He had, of course, dreamed of battles all his life–of vague and bloody conflicts that had thrilled him
with their sweep and fire. In visions he had seen himself in many struggles. He had imagined peoples
secure in the shadow of his eagle-eyed prowess. But awake he had regarded battles as crimson
blotches on the pages of the past. He had put them as things of the bygone with his thought-images
of heavy crowns and high castles.

There was a portion of the world’s history which he had regarded
as the time of wars, but it, he thought, had been long gone over the horizon and had disappeared
From his home his youthful eyes had looked upon the war in his own country with distrust. It must be
some sort of a play affair. He had long despaired of witnessing a Greeklike struggle. Such would be
no more, he had said. Men were better, or more timid. Secular and religious education had effaced
the throat-grappling instinct, or else firm finance held in check the passions.
He had burned several times to enlist. Tales of great movements shook the land. They might not be
distinctly Homeric, but there seemed to be much glory in them. He had read of marches, sieges,
conflicts, and he had longed to see it all. His busy mind had drawn for him large pictures extravagant
in color, lurid with breathless deeds.

But his mother had discouraged him. She had affected to look with some contempt upon the quality
of his war ardor and patriotism. She could calmly seat herself and with no apparent difficulty give him
many hundreds of reasons why he was of vastly more importance on the farm than on the field of
battle. She had had certain ways of expression that told him that her statements on the subject came
from a deep conviction. Moreover, on her side, was his belief that her ethical motive in the argument

At last, however, he had made firm rebellion against this yellow light thrown upon the color of his
ambitions. The newspapers, the gossip of the village, his own picturings, had aroused him to an
uncheckable degree. They were in truth fighting finely down there. Almost every day the newspaper
printed accounts of a decisive victory.
One night, as he lay in bed, the winds had carried to him the clangoring of the church bell as some
enthusiast jerked the rope frantically to tell the twisted news of a great battle. This voice of the
people rejoicing in the night had made him shiver in a prolonged ecstasy of excitement. Later, he had
gone down to his mother’s room and had spoken thus: “Ma, I’m going to enlist.”
“Henry, don’t you be a fool,” his mother had replied. She had then covered her face with the quilt.

There was an end to the matter for that night.
Nevertheless, the next morning he had gone to a town that was near his mother’s farm and had
enlisted in a company that was forming there. When he had returned home his mother was milking
the brindle cow. Four others stood waiting. “Ma, I’ve enlisted,” he had said to her diffidently. There
was a short silence. “The Lord’s will be done, Henry,” she had finally replied, and had then continued
When he had stood in the doorway with his soldier’s clothes on his back, and with the light of
excitement and expectancy in his eyes almost defeating the glow of regret for the home bonds, he
had seen two tears leaving their trails on his mother’s scarred cheeks.

Still, she had disappointed him by saying nothing whatever about returning with his shield or on it. He
had privately primed himself for a beautiful scene. He had prepared certain sentences which he
thought could be used with touching effect. But her words destroyed his plans. She had doggedly
peeled potatoes and addressed him as follows: “You watch out, Henry, an’ take good care of yerself
in this here fighting business–you watch, an’ take good care of yerself. Don’t go a-thinkin’ you can
lick the hull rebel army at the start, because yeh can’t. Yer jest one little feller amongst a hull lot of
others, and yeh’ve got to keep quiet an’ do what they tell yeh. I know how you are, Henry.
“I’ve knet yeh eight pair of socks, Henry, and I’ve put in all yer best shirts, because I want my boy to
be jest as warm and comf’able as anybody in the army. Whenever they get holes in ’em, I want yeh
to send ’em right-away back to me, so’s I kin dern ’em.

“An’ allus be careful an’ choose yer comp’ny. There’s lots of bad men in the army, Henry. The army
makes ’em wild, and they like nothing better than the job of leading off a young feller like you, as ain’t
never been away from home much and has allus had a mother, an’ a-learning ’em to drink and swear.
Keep clear of them folks, Henry. I don’t want yeh to ever do anything, Henry, that yeh would be
‘shamed to let me know about. Jest think as if I was a-watchin’ yeh. If yeh keep that in yer mind
allus, I guess yeh’ll come out about right.
“Yeh must allus remember yer father, too, child, an’ remember he never drunk a drop of licker in his
life, and seldom swore a cross oath.

“I don’t know what else to tell yeh, Henry, excepting that yeh must never do no shirking, child, on my
account. If so be a time comes when yeh have to be kilt of do a mean thing, why, Henry, don’t think
of anything ‘cept what’s right, because there’s many a woman has to bear up ‘ginst sech things these
times, and the Lord ‘ll take keer of us all.
“Don’t forgit about the socks and the shirts, child; and I’ve put a cup of blackberry jam with yer
bundle, because I know yeh like it above all things. Good-by, Henry. Watch out, and be a good
He had, of course, been impatient under the ordeal of this speech. It had not been quite what he
expected, and he had borne it with an air of irritation.

He departed feeling vague relief.
Still, when he had looked back from the gate, he had seen his mother kneeling among the potato
parings. Her brown face, upraised, was stained with tears, and her spare form was quivering. He
bowed his head and went on, feeling suddenly ashamed of his purposes.
From his home he had gone to the seminary to bid adieu to many schoolmates. They had thronged
about him with wonder and admiration. He had felt the gulf now between them and had swelled with
calm pride. He and some of his fellows who had donned blue were quite overwhelmed with
privileges for all of one afternoon, and it had been a very delicious thing. They had strutted.

A certain light-haired girl had made vivacious fun at his martial spirit, but there was another and
darker girl whom he had gazed at steadfastly, and he thought she grew demure and sad at sight of his
blue and brass. As he had walked down the path between the rows of oaks, he had turned his head
and detected her at a window watching his departure. As he perceived her, she had immediately
begun to stare up through the high tree branches at the sky. He had seen a good deal of flurry and
haste in her movement as she changed her attitude. He often thought of it.
On the way to Washington his spirit had soared.

The regiment was fed and caressed at station after
station until the youth had believed that he must be a hero. There was a lavish expenditure of bread
and cold meats, coffee, and pickles and cheese. As he basked in the smiles of the girls and was
patted and complimented by the old men, he had felt growing within him the strength to do mighty
After complicated journeyings with many pauses, there had come months of monotonous life in a
camp. He had had the belief that real war was a series of death struggles with small time in between
for sleep and meals; but since his regiment had come to the field the army had done little but sit still
He was brought then gradually back to his old ideas. Greeklike struggles would be no more. Men
were better, or more timid.

Secular and religious education had effaced the throat-grappling instinct,
or else firm finance held in check the passions.
He had grown to regard himself merely as a part of a vast blue demonstration. His province was to
look out, as far as he could, for his personal comfort. For recreation he could twiddle his thumbs and
speculate on the thoughts which must agitate the minds of the generals. Also, he was drilled and
drilled and reviewed, and drilled and drilled and reviewed.

The only foes he had seen were some pickets along the river bank. They were a sun-tanned,
philosophical lot, who sometimes shot reflectively at the blue pickets. When reproached for this
afterward, they usually expressed sorrow, and swore by their gods that the guns had exploded
without their permission. The youth, on guard duty one night, conversed across the stream with one
of them. He was a slightly ragged man, who spat skillfully between his shoes and possessed a great
fund of bland and infantile assurance. The youth liked him personally.
“Yank,” the other had informed him, “yer a right dum good feller.” This sentiment, floating to him
upon the still air, had made him temporarily regret war.

Various veterans had told him tales. Some talked of gray, bewhiskered hordes who were advancing
with relentless curses and chewing tobacco with unspeakable valor; tremendous bodies of fierce
soldiery who were sweeping along like the Huns. Others spoke of tattered and eternally hungry men
who fired despondent powders. “They’ll charge through hell’s fire an’ brimstone t’ git a holt on a
haversack, an’ sech stomachs ain’t a’lastin’ long,” he was told. From the stories, the youth imagined
the red, live bones sticking out through slits in the faded uniforms.
Still, he could not put a whole faith in veteran’s tales, for recruits were their prey. They talked much
of smoke, fire, and blood, but he could not tell how much might be lies. They persistently yelled
“Fresh fish!” at him, and were in no wise to be trusted.

However, he perceived now that it did not greatly matter what kind of soldiers he was going to fight,
so long as they fought, which fact no one disputed. There was a more serious problem. He lay in his
bunk pondering upon it. He tried to mathematically prove to himself that he would not run from a
Previously he had never felt obliged to wrestle too seriously with this question. In his life he had
taken certain things for granted, never challenging his belief in ultimate success, and bothering little
about means and roads. But here he was confronted with a thing of moment. It had suddenly
appeared to him that perhaps in a battle he might run. He was forced to admit that as far as war was
concerned he knew nothing of himself.

A sufficient time before he would have allowed the problem to kick its heels at the outer portals of
his mind, but now he felt compelled to give serious attention to it.
A little panic-fear grew in his mind. As his imagination went forward to a fight, he saw hideous
possibilities. He contemplated the lurking menaces of the future, and failed in an effort to see himself
standing stoutly in the midst of them. He recalled his visions of broken-bladed glory, but in the
shadow of the impending tumult he suspected them to be impossible pictures.

He sprang from the bunk and began to pace nervously to and fro. “Good Lord, what’s th’ matter
He felt that in this crisis his laws of life were useless. Whatever he had learned of himself was here of
no avail. He was an unknown quantity. He saw that he would again be obliged to experiment as he
had in early youth. He must accumulate information of himself, and meanwhile he resolved to remain
close upon his guard lest those qualities of which he knew nothing should everlastingly disgrace him.
“Good Lord!” he repeated in dismay.

After a time the tall soldier slid dexterously through the hole. The loud private followed. They were
“That’s all right,” said the tall soldier as he entered. He waved his hand expressively. “You can
believe me or not, jest as you like. All you got to do is sit down and wait as quiet as you can. Then
pretty soon you’ll find out I was right.”
His comrade grunted stubbornly. For a moment he seemed to be searching for a formidable reply.
Finally he said: “Well, you don’t know everything in the world, do you?”
“Didn’t say I knew everything in the world,” retorted the other sharply. He began to stow various

The youth, pausing in his nervous walk, looked down at the busy figure. “Going to be a battle, sure,
“Of course there is,” replied the tall soldier. “Of course there is. You jest wait ’til to-morrow, and
you’ll see one of the biggest battles ever was. You jest wait.”
“Oh, you’ll see fighting this time, my boy, what’ll be regular out-and-out fighting,” added the tall
soldier, with the air of a man who is about to exhibit a battle for the benefit of his friends.
“Huh!” said the loud one from a corner.
“Well,” remarked the youth, “like as not this story’ll turn out jest like them others did.”
“Not much it won’t,” replied the tall soldier, exasperated. “Not much it won’t. Didn’t the cavalry all
start this morning?” He glared about him. No one denied his statement. “The cavalry started this
morning,” he continued. “They say there ain’t hardly any cavalry left in camp. They’re going to
Richmond, or some place, while we fight all the Johnnies. It’s some dodge like that. The regiment’s
got orders, too. A feller what seen ’em go to headquarters told me a little while ago. And they’re
raising blazes all over camp–anybody can see that.”

The youth remained silent for a time. At last he spoke to the tall soldier. “Jim!”
“How do you think the reg’ment ‘ll do?”
“Oh, they’ll fight all right, I guess, after they once get into it,” said the other with cold judgment. He
made a fine use of the third person. “There’s been heaps of fun poked at ’em because they’re new, of
course, and all that; but they’ll fight all right, I guess.”
“Think any of the boys ‘ll run?” persisted the youth.
“Oh, there may be a few of ’em run, but there’s them kind in every regiment, ‘specially when they first
goes under fire,” said the other in a tolerant way. “Of course it might happen that the hull
kit-and-boodle might start and run, if some big fighting came first-off, and then again they might stay
and fight like fun.

But you can’t bet on nothing. Of course they ain’t never been under fire yet, and it
ain’t likely they’ll lick the hull rebel army all-to-oncet the first time; but I think they’ll fight better than
some, if worse than others. That’s the way I figger. They call the reg’ment ‘Fresh fish’ and everything;
but the boys come of good stock, and most of ’em ‘ll fight like sin after they oncet git shootin’,” he
added, with a mighty emphasis on the last four words.
“Oh, you think you know–” began the loud soldier with scorn.
The other turned savagely upon him. They had a rapid altercation, in which they fastened upon each
The youth at last interrupted them. “Did you ever think you might run yourself, Jim?” he asked. On
concluding the sentence he laughed as if he had meant to aim a joke. The loud soldier also giggled.

The tall private waved his hand. “Well”, said he profoundly, “I’ve thought it might get too hot for Jim
Conklin in some of them scrimmages, and if a whole lot of boys started and run, why, I s’pose I’d
start and run. And if I once started to run, I’d run like the devil, and no mistake. But if everybody
was a-standing and a-fighting, why, I’d stand and fight. Be jiminey, I would. I’ll bet on it.”
The youth of this tale felt gratitude for these words of his comrade. He had feared that all of the
untried men possessed great and correct confidence. He now was in a measure reassured.
The next morning the youth discovered that his tall comrade had been the fast-flying messenger of a

There was much scoffing at the latter by those who had yesterday been firm adherents of
his views, and there was even a little sneering by men who had never believed the rumor. The tall
one fought with a man from Chatfield Corners and beat him severely.
The youth felt, however, that his problem was in no wise lifted from him. There was, on the contrary,
an irritating prolongation. The tale had created in him a great concern for himself. Now, with the
newborn question in his mind, he was compelled to sink back into his old place as part of a blue
For days he made ceaseless calculations, but they were all wondrously unsatisfactory. He found that
he could establish nothing. He finally concluded that the only way to prove himself was to go into the
blaze, and then figuratively to watch his legs to discover their merits and faults. He reluctantly
admitted that he could not sit still and with a mental slate and pencil derive an answer. To gain it, he
must have blaze, blood, and danger, even as a chemist requires this, that, and the other. So he
Meanwhile, he continually tried to measure himself by his comrades. The tall soldier, for one, gave
him some assurance.

This man’s serene unconcern dealt him a measure of confidence, for he had
known him since childhood, and from his intimate knowledge he did not see how he could be
capable of anything that was beyond him, the youth. Still, he thought that his comrade might be
mistaken about himself. Or, on the other hand, he might be a man heretofore doomed to peace and
obscurity, but, in reality, made to shine in war.
The youth would have liked to have discovered another who suspected himself. A sympathetic
comparison of mental notes would have been a joy to him.
He occasionally tried to fathom a comrade with seductive sentences. He looked about to find men in
the proper mood.

All attempts failed to bring forth any statement which looked in any way like a
confession to those doubts which he privately acknowledged in himself. He was afraid to make an
open declaration of his concern, because he dreaded to place some unscrupulous confidant upon the
high plane of the unconfessed from which elevation he could be derided.
In regard to his companions his mind wavered between two opinions, according to his mood.
Sometimes he inclined to believing them all heroes. In fact, he usually admired in secret the superior
development of the higher qualities in others.

He could conceive of men going very insignificantly
about the world bearing a load of courage unseen, and although he had known many of his
comrades through boyhood, he began to fear that his judgment of them had been blind. Then, in
other moments, he flouted these theories, and assured him that his fellows were all privately
His emotions made him feel strange in the presence of men who talked excitedly of a prospective
battle as of a drama they were about to witness, with nothing but eagerness and curiosity apparent in
their faces. It was often that he suspected them to be liars.

He did not pass such thoughts without severe condemnation of himself. He dinned reproaches at
times. He was convicted by himself of many shameful crimes against the gods of traditions.
In his great anxiety his heart was continually clamoring at what he considered the intolerable
slowness of the generals. They seemed content to perch tranquilly on the river bank, and leave him
bowed down by the weight of a great problem. He wanted it settled forthwith. He could not long
bear such a load, he said. Sometimes his anger at the commanders reached an acute stage, and he
grumbled about the camp like a veteran.

One morning, however, he found himself in the ranks of his prepared regiment. The men were
whispering speculations and recounting the old rumors. In the gloom before the break of the day
their uniforms glowed a deep purple hue. From across the river the red eyes were still peering. In the
eastern sky there was a yellow patch like a rug laid for the feet of the coming sun; and against it,
black and patternlike, loomed the gigantic figure of the colonel on a gigantic horse.
From off in the darkness came the trampling of feet. The youth could occasionally see dark shadows
that moved like monsters. The regiment stood at rest for what seemed a long time. The youth grew
impatient. It was unendurable the way these affairs were managed. He wondered how long they
As he looked all about him and pondered upon the mystic gloom, he began to believe that at any
moment the ominous distance might be aflare, and the rolling crashes of an engagement come to his
ears. Staring once at the red eyes across the river, he conceived them to be growing larger, as the
orbs of a row of dragons advancing. He turned toward the colonel and saw him lift his gigantic arm

At last he heard from along the road at the foot of the hill the clatter of a horse’s galloping hoofs. It
must be the coming of orders. He bent forward, scarce breathing. The exciting clickety-click, as it
grew louder and louder, seemed to be beating upon his soul. Presently a horseman with jangling
equipment drew rein before the colonel of the regiment. The two held a short, sharp-worded
conversation. The men in the foremost ranks craned their necks.
As the horseman wheeled his animal and galloped away he turned to shout over his shoulder, “Don’t
forget that box of cigars!” The colonel mumbled in reply. The youth wondered what a box of cigars
A moment later the regiment went swinging off into the darkness. It was now like one of those
moving monsters wending with many feet. The air was heavy, and cold with dew. A mass of wet
grass, marched upon, rustled like silk.
There was an occasional flash and glimmer of steel from the backs of all these huge crawling reptiles.

From the road came creakings and grumblings as some surly guns were dragged away.
The men stumbled along still muttering speculations. There was a subdued debate. Once a man fell
down, and as he reached for his rifle a comrade, unseeing, trod upon his hand. He of the injured
fingers swore bitterly, and aloud. A low, tittering laugh went among his fellows.
Presently they passed into a roadway and marched forward with easy strides. A dark regiment
moved before them, and from behind also came the tinkle of equipments on the bodies of marching
The rushing yellow of the developing day went on behind their backs. When the sunrays at last
struck full and mellowingly upon the earth, the youth saw that the landscape was streaked with two
long, thin, black columns which disappeared on the brow of a hill in front and rearward vanished in a
wood. They were like two serpents crawling from the cavern of the night.
The river was not in view.

The tall soldier burst into praises of what he thought to be his powers of
Some of the tall one’s companions cried with emphasis that they, too, had evolved the same thing,
and they congratulated themselves upon it. But there were others who said that the tall one’s plan
was not the true one at all. They persisted with other theories. There was a vigorous discussion.
The youth took no part in them. As he walked along in careless line he was engaged with his own
eternal debate. He could not hinder himself from dwelling upon it. He was despondent and sullen,
and threw shifting glances about him. He looked ahead, often expecting to hear from the advance the
But the long serpents crawled slowly from hill to hill without bluster of smoke. A dun-colored cloud
of dust floated away to the right. The sky overhead was of a fairy blue.

The youth studied the faces of his companions, ever on the watch to detect kindred emotions. He
suffered disappointment. Some ardor of the air which was causing the veteran commands to move
with glee–almost with song–had infected the new regiment. The men began to speak of victory as
of a thing they knew. Also, the tall soldier received his vindication. They were certainly going to
come around in behind the enemy. They expressed commiseration for that part of the army which
had been left upon the river bank, felicitating themselves upon being a part of a blasting host.
The youth, considering himself as separated from the others, was saddened by the blithe and merry
speeches that went from rank to rank. The company wags all made their best endeavors. The
regiment tramped to the tune of laughter.
The blatant soldier often convulsed whole files by his biting sarcasms aimed at the tall one.
And it was not long before all the men seemed to forget their mission. Whole brigades grinned in

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this essay please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Leave a Comment