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The Red Badge of Courage - Success and EthicsThe Red Badge of Courage - Success and Ethics


The Red Badge of Courage (1895)


Written by the American, Stephen Crane (1871-1900), pictured right.


Set in...

The Battle of Chancellorsville (1863) during the American Civil War

The two opposing sides were the:

  • Union army (from the Northern states).
  • Confederates (from the South).

 The Red Badge of Courage - Success and Ethics

Fun facts

  • Crane died of tuberculosis in England where his book’s anti-war message was much better received than in America.
  • A 1951 film starred Audie Murphy as Henry Fleming (pictured right).


Key characters

Henry Fleming, young private in the Union army

Jim Conklin and Wilson, his fellow soldiers and friends

The tattered soldier, an injured soldier

 The Red Badge of Courage - Success and Ethics

The story

Private Henry Fleming’s regiment of the Union army defeats the Confederates’ first charge.

Terrified, he can’t run away (because he’s boxed in by his fellow soldiers) and he fires mindlessly and mechanically.

But, faced by another charge, he flees into the surrounding countryside with some of his fellow soldiers.

After an initial feeling that the remaining fighters are fools, he is ashamed of his cowardice after:

  • hearing a general praise his regiment.
  • reminding himself of his mother’s advice to do his duty.

Shaken, he wanders through a forest and runs away after seeing a soldier’s decaying corpse.

He then joins some wounded soldiers, of whom he is deeply envious, because he thinks that a wound is like “a red badge of courage”.The Red Badge of Courage - Success and Ethics

He meets a twice shot, tattered soldier (pictured right) who:

  • speaks proudly of the fact that his regiment did not flee.
  • repeatedly asks Henry how he has been wounded.

This forces Henry to move away, and he eventually sees his fellow solder and friend, Jim Conklin, who is badly wounded.

Henry promises to take care of him, but he dies with Henry and the tattered (and dying) soldier who continues to enquire about Henry’s wound. Unable to bear his questioning, Henry abandons him to die in the forest.

He is close enough to the battlefield to watch some of the fighting. He tries to stop some retreating soldiers to find out what is happening, but one of them gashes Henry’s head with a rifle. After returning to his regiment, his friend, Wilson, thinks he has been shot and cares for him.The Red Badge of Courage - Success and Ethics

The next day, the regiment goes into battle. Enraged by Jim Conklin’s death, Henry fights bravely and then leads a charge carrying the regimental flag.

This prompts his commanders, a colonel and lieutenant, to say that he and Wilson are the best soldiers in the regiment.

Henry again carries the flag in a victorious charge. Wilson takes the enemy flag and four prisoners are captured.

Henry briefly remembers his cowardice the previous day and his abandonment of the dying tattered man.

But his guilt disappears when he thinks of his bravery through “the red sickness” of battle. He is now able to look forward to peacetime with quiet pride and contentment.


Lessons for success and ethics


1. Self-respect through self-sacrifice

Henry learns the importance of courage and duty taught by his mother.

This gives him his self-respect back after the shame of his cowardice.


2. Listen to your conscience

The tattered soldier’s constant nagging is Henry’s conscience.

 The Red Badge of Courage - Success and Ethics

3. You can’t do everything on your own

The regiment’s success in battle is a team effort with soldiers (like Henry) fighting individually but co-operating well with each other.

Henry is pictured right with another soldier (Bill Maudlin) in the film.


4. Nobody is perfect

Like everybody else, he has:

  • weaknesses (his cowardice).
  • strengths (bravery and learning from mistakes).

 The Red Badge of Courage - Success and Ethics

5. Never stop learning

Henry learns from his:

  • cowardly mistakes.
  • mother’s moral responsibility.
  • fellow soldiers, particularly Wilson and Jim Conklin (Henry is inspired by their bravery and support) 


6. Empowerment and self-belief are important

At first Henry fights mechanically and mindlessly, feeling part of a big military machine and becoming:

“not a man but a member”.The Red Badge of Courage - Success and Ethics

He is much more courageous and self-confident when he discovers his own:

  • identity.
  • reasons for fighting.

He takes responsibility for his own actions rather than relying on other people to tell him what to do.

Henry is pictured right in battle in the film.  


7. Humility is vital

Wilson discovers quiet self-belief and resolve from recognizing his:

a) life’s relative insignificance

b) vulnerability (prompting him to give Henry a letter for his family if he should die).

Henry, too, learns humility from realizing that:

  • the world will go on without him.
  • everyone, great or small, will meet the same fate of death.

 The Red Badge of Courage - Success and Ethics

8. Adversity can be advantageous

Despite its horrors, war makes Henry and Wilson:

  • kinder.
  • braver
  • more responsible.


9. Be a principled pragmatist

Jim Conklin has principles ,particularly

  • duty.
  • sacrifice.
  • self-reliance

But he also pragmatically changes his principles according to different circumstances.The Red Badge of Courage - Success and Ethics

He tells Henry that he would:

  • run (if other soldiers did).
  • fight (if they fought).

Henry is pictured right with two other soldiers in the film before going into battle. 

Key quotes on ethics and integrity

He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of honour.

A serious prophet upon predicting a flood should be the first to climb a tree, Henry (justifying his cowardice)


Key quotes on war

He turned now with a lover’s thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks – an existence of soft and eternal peace (on Henry leaving the battle)

It was a woman, red and white, hating and loving, that called him with the voice of his hopes (on Henry and the regimental flag)


Key quotes on teamwork

He became not a man but a member ... He was welded into a common personality which was dominated by a single desire (on Henry’s automatic rifle firing)


Two literature websites to recommend 

1. sparknotes.com

2. litcharts.com

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