to Write Context Paper
Subtle Battle Brotherhood":
Construction of Military Discipline in The Red Badge of Courage
After the battle of First Bull Run, General William Tecumseh
Sherman complained, "I doubt if our democratic form of government
admits of that organization and discipline without which an army is a
Throughout the war, military discipline would remain problematic
for both armies. Union
colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson argued that officers faced a challenge
in disciplining an army composed of individuals raised in a democratic
tradition: "Three years are not long enough to overcome the settled
habits of twenty years. The
weak point of our volunteer service invariably lies here, that the
soldier, in nine cases out of ten, utterly detests being commanded, while
the officer, in his turn, equally shrinks from commanding."[ii]
In "The Private History of a Campaign that Failed," Mark
Twain recalled the frequent insubordination of the men under his command:
"These camps were composed of young men who had been born and reared
to a sturdy independence, and who did not know what it meant to be ordered
around by Tom, Dick, and Harry, whom they had known familiarly all their
lives, in the village or on the farm."
Twain went on to note that "there were those among us who
afterward learned the grim trade; learned to obey like machines; became
valuable soldiers; fought all through the war, and came out at the end
with excellent records."[iii]
The question is, by what strategies were men "reared to a
sturdy independence" taught to "obey like machines"?
One possible response was to emphasize the supervisory role of the
officer. Writing in 1864,
Higginson insisted that the war had conclusively demonstrated the need for
a well-trained corps of officers. Noting
some of the derelictions that he had personally witnessed--neglect of
picket duty and failure to maintain sanitary conditions--Higginson argued
that the blame must always fall on the officers:
officer makes the command, as surely, as, in educational matters, the
teacher makes the school. There is not a regiment in the army so good that it could not
be utterly spoiled in three months by a poor commander, nor so poor that
it could not be altogether transformed in six by a good one.
The difference in material is nothing,--white or black, German or
Irish; so potent is military machinery that an officer who knows his
business can make good soldiers out of almost anything, give him but a
fair chance. (355).
Higginson the power of this potent military machinery depended on the
correct placement of the "raw material" in a system of
observation and hierarchy. He
insisted, "The newest recruit soon grows steady with a steady
corporal at his elbow, a well-trained sergeant behind him, and a captain
or a colonel whose voice means something to give commands" (355).
However, Higginson's belief in the efficacy of the officer, a
visibly placed external authority, was not the only model of military
discipline in circulation by the turn of the century.
Ellwood Bergey's 1903 book, Why Soldiers Desert from the United
States Army, attacks the system of military discipline as a threat to
the American belief in the dignity of the individual:
entering the army the young man must sacrifice every atom of manhood and
dignity in order to comply with the foppish rules of the Army Regulations,
which are enforced with demon-like persistence.
He must bow in servile obedience to the most accomplished
bacchanalian that holds an army commission.
No vasal or slave was ever required to show greater humility to
their masters than the soldiers of the United States Army are required to
show toward their "superior" officers.[iv]
is careful to point out that eliminating this "servile
obedience" would not undermine true military discipline.
Using "our great industrial establishments" as an
example, Bergey suggests that the most efficient workers or soldiers are
the product of internal rather than external discipline:
for instance, the railway engineers of the United States performing their
difficult and exhausting labors with the most marvelous perfection.
Do you think that if the engineers were under compulsion to
face-front and salute every official of the road, of high or low degree,
that it would increase their efficiency at the throttle?
Were the railways of this country to promulgate an order requiring
all employees to meekly salute the various officers of each road, it would
surely be the means of driving the most intelligent and valuable men from
the service. (133-34)
in a study of the experience of the common soldier of the Civil War,
Gerald F. Linderman argues that despite the lack of formal discipline, the
soldiers nevertheless performed admirably where it counted most--in
battle. Linderman suggests
that the cultural value attached to the concept of courage provided the
structure necessary for military discipline.[v]
The tension between
external and internal models of military discipline is represented in The
Red Badge of Courage. As
Henry Fleming is transformed from a raw recruit to an effective soldier,
his own vigilant internal gaze eliminates the need for constant
supervision by his officers. Henry's
disciplining reflects a broader tension in nineteenth-century American
culture between a discourse that celebrated the freedom of the autonomous
individual and a discourse that emphasized the need for effective
mechanisms of social control.
Before he leaves for the war Henry's mother gives him advice that
will become the foundation of Henry's immersion in military discipline.
To avoid doing anything shameful, he must always imagine that his
actions are observed: "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
She also encourages him to accept his place in military authority:
"Yer jest one little feller amongst a hull lot of others and yeh've
got to keep quiet an' do what they tell yeh" (6).
This advice is especially important given Henry's romantic dreams
of "Greeklike" struggles where he imagines "peoples secure
in the shadow of his eagle-eyed prowess" (4-5).
By the time of the Civil War, such individualistic heroics were
anachronistic, if not actually counter-productive. Modern warfare required disciplined soldiers who recognize
their place in the military hierarchy.
Henry's initial experiences in the army prepare him for this
concept of warfare through strict regimentation: he is "drilled and
drilled and reviewed, and drilled and drilled and reviewed" (7).
The repetitious drill is designed to establish the instinct of
obedience to the officers, and the constant review begins the process of
evaluation that will properly place the men within the military hierarchy. In camp Henry begins to internalize the army's code as he
becomes his own observer and evaluator.
He realizes that he is an "unknown quantity," and understands 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" (8, 11). As he impatiently waits for this test, he becomes frustrated
over the delays, and, curiously, the text seems to link his subversive
complaints with veteran status: "Sometimes, his anger at the
commanders reached an acute stage, and he grumbled about the camp like
a veteran" (my emphasis, 11-12).
This simile suggests that to fully develop the code of courage the
soldier must have an element of insubordination.
As he approaches his first battle, the physical presence of the
regiment provides a structure that contains Henry's fear: "He
instantly saw that it would be impossible for him to escape from the
regiment. It inclosed him. And
there were iron laws of tradition and law on four sides.
He was in a moving box" (18).
The representatives of military authority are visibly present: the
company captain coaxes the men "in schoolmistress fashion" (26),
and the lieutenant beats Henry with his sword when he seems to be
"skulking" (20). During
the actual fighting, Henry is reassured by the presence of his comrades
about him: "He felt the subtle battle brotherhood more potent even
than the cause for which they were fighting" (26).
But the limitations of external mechanisms of discipline are
exposed in the second engagement. When
Henry mistakenly believes that his regiment is fleeing, he is left to his
own, yet undeveloped, resources, and his survival instincts overwhelm his
military training. The
external control of the military authority, in this case, the lieutenant,
is unable to stop his flight: "The lieutenant sprang forward,
bawling. The youth saw his
features wrathfully red, and saw him make a dab with his sword.
His one thought of the incident was that the lieutenant was a
peculiar creature to feel interested in such matters upon this
Henry's desertion is an extreme breach of military discipline, yet
his thoughts reveal that his flight never removes him from the terms of
military authority. Henry's
initial rationalizations attempt to rewrite his cowardice as sound
had done a good part in saving himself, who was a little piece of the
army. He had considered the
time, he said, to be one in which it was the duty of every little piece to
rescue itself if possible. Later
the officers could fit the little pieces together again, and make a
battle-front. If none of the
little pieces were wise enough to save themselves from the flurry of death
at such a time, why, then, where would be the army?
It was all plain that he had proceeded according to very correct
and commendable rules. (34)
course, this subversion of military discipline, which demands obedience of
privates rather than discretion, is subverted by Crane's irony.
As readers, we know that no such thoughts were in Henry's mind at
the moment of his flight, and the absurdity of his strategy has been made
apparent by the general, who is delighted that Henry's regiment has held
its position (34). Likewise,
Henry's later attempts to justify his behavior are undercut by his
encounters with the dead man, the tattered man, and Jim Conklin.
When Henry sees their bodies, visibly marked with the evidence of
their obedience, he realizes the extent of his own violation of the code
of courage. Lacking a wound,
he believes that his cowardice is visible: "He now felt that his
shame could be viewed. He was
continually casting sidelong glances to see if the men were contemplating
the letters of guilt he felt burned into his brow" (40-41).
To Henry the tattered man's innocent questions assert "a
society that probes pitilessly at secrets until all is apparent"
(47). Henry's fear of
detection leads him to worry that in future engagements his regiment
"would try to keep watch of him to discover when he would run"
(51), and he imagines himself subject to their collective gaze:
"Then, as if the heads were moved by one muscle, all the faces were
turned toward him with wide, derisive grins. . . . He was a slang
phrase" (51). Henry's
shame is not actually visible but the persistent ocular imagery makes it
clear that his violation of the code of courage has made him into his own
observer. His desire for
escape from this imagined gaze leads him to wish for a visible mark of
heroism, "a wound, a red badge of courage" (41).
When he is wounded by a retreating soldier from his own army, his
confidence is restored because he can now evade the gaze of the army:
"He did not shrink from an encounter with the eyes of judges, and
allowed no thoughts of his own to keep him from an attitude of manfulness.
He had performed his mistakes in the dark, so he was still a
man" (64). But Henry's
thoughts make it clear that the inefficient surveillance of the army has
been replaced by his own internal gaze, as his awareness of his
transgression inscribes the code of courage.
Henry realizes that he is still "below the standard of
traditional man-hood" and feels "abashed when confronting
memories of some men he had seen."[vii]
Henry's three engagements on the second day complete his movement
from external to internal discipline.
In the first battle, his animal instincts take over and he fights
viciously, even after the enemy has retreated.
While he is in front of the line, fighting alone, Henry's comrades
"seemed all to be engaged in staring with astonishment at him.
They had become spectators" (72).
Having acted heroically in the eyes of the army, Henry can now view
himself as a hero: "Regarding it, he saw that it was fine, wild, and,
in some ways, easy. He had
been a tremendous figure, no doubt. By
this struggle he had overcome obstacles which he had admitted to be
mountains. They had fallen
like paper peaks, and he was now what he called a hero" (72).
Even though Henry has acted in an undisciplined manner--he has
pressed forward in advance of his regiment and has continued to discharge
his rifle even though the enemy is no longer present--the lieutenant, a
shrewd officer, reinforces Henry's newly constructed self by praising him
(72). But to be a good
soldier, Henry must still integrate courage and discipline.
Ironically, all that is necessary to complete Henry's disciplining
is a sense of resentment against his officers.
Before the next engagement Henry overhears the general dismiss his
regiment as "mule drivers" who could easily be sacrificed (75).
His anger at the general surfaces when the lieutenant encourages
Henry to continue the stalled attack, even grappling "with him as if
for a wrestling bout" (79). In frustration, and feeling "a sudden unspeakable
indignation against his officer," Henry defiantly leads the charge,
even picking up the flag when the color bearer is shot (79).
When the attack fails, Henry is frustrated because he had hoped
that his actions would force the general to re-evaluate his regiment's
worth: "He had pictured red letters of curious revenge. 'We are
mule drivers, are we?' And
now he was compelled to throw them away" (82). Likewise, in the final engagement, Henry is willing to stand
firm, even to his death, which would be "a poignant retaliation"
upon the general: "In all the wild graspings of his mind for a unit
responsible for his sufferings and commotions he always seized upon the
man who had dubbed him wrongly. And
it was his idea, vaguely formulated, that his corpse would be for those
eyes a great and salt reproach" (my emphasis, 91).
The extent to which Henry's anger leads to his total immersion in
military discipline is suggested by the "tranquil philosophy" he
expresses after the regiment overhears the general's contemptuous
dismissal (87). Henry
reassures Wilson that the general "probably didnt see nothing of it
at all and got mad as blazes, and concluded we were a lot of sheep, just
because we didn't do what he wanted done" (87).
He wishes that Grandpa Henderson had been there to witness it for
"he'd have known that we did our best and fought good" (87), and
he basks in the praise of the colonel and lieutenant, who label him
"a jimhickey," and suggest that he should be a major-general
(88). No longer concerned
with larger questions of strategy, which are properly the domain of the
generals, Henry submits himself to the expectations of his immediate
officers. Thus, cowardly
desertion produces heroism, and resentment against the officers produces
passive acceptance of military hierarchy.
After the final battle Henry scrutinizes his deeds "in
spectator fashion" (96). He
begins by thinking of his public displays of courage, "witnessed by
his fellows," which hide "various deflections" (96).
Henry recalls the "respectful comments of his fellows upon his
conduct" and the lieutenant's praises (96).[viii]
However, when he remembers his flight, his railings against nature,
and his desertion of the tattered man, he fears that his guilt is visible:
"He looked stealthily at his companions feeling sure that they must
discern in his face evidences of this pursuit" (97).
Realizing that his comrades remain oblivious, Henry quiets his own
conscience by considering the practical benefits of his desertion of the
tattered soldier: "He concluded that he saw in it quaint uses.
He exclaimed that its importance in the aftertime would be great to
him if it even succeeded in hindering the workings of his egotism.
It would make a sobering balance.
It would become a good part of him."
This "plan for the utilization of a sin" underscores the
value of Henry's cowardice.[ix]
In the future it will serve to diminish his sense of himself as an
individual and enable him to submit to the authority of military
Crane's metaphors frequently draw parallels between the battlefield
and the school. Accordingly,
it is not surprising to see a similar movement from external to internal
discipline in contemporary educational discourse.
By the late nineteenth century, the quest for uniform education had
resulted in an emphasis on strict regimentation.
The 1874 Statement of the Theory of Education in the United
States, which was endorsed by seventy-seven prominent educators,
insisted that the school "is obliged to train the pupil into habits
of prompt obedience to his teachers and the practice of self-control in
its various forms."[x]
In 1893 Joseph Meyer Rice, editor of the Forum, described
the typical New York City primary school as "a hard, unsympathetic,
mechanical-drudgery school, a school into which the light of science has
not yet entered. Its
characteristic feature lies in the severity of its discipline, a
discipline of enforced silence, immobility, and mental passivity."[xi]
Recitation periods were opportunities for the teacher to closely
examine the students to evaluate not only their comprehension of the
lesson, but also the physical arrangement of their bodies:
several daily recitation periods, each of which is from twenty to
twenty-five minutes in duration, the children are obliged to stand on the
line, perfectly motionless, their bodies erect, their knees and feet
together, the tips of their shoes touching the edge of a board in the
floor. The slightest movement
on the part of a child attracts the attention of the teacher.
The recitation is repeatedly interrupted with cries of "Stand
straight," "Don't bend the knees," "Don't lean against
the wall," and so on. I heard one teacher ask a little boy: "How can you learn
anything with your knees and toes out of order?" The toes appear to play a more important role than the
reasoning faculties. The
teacher never forgets the toes; every few moments she casts her eyes
By the turn of the century, many educators had become concerned
that these schools were not properly preparing students for the world of
business. These Progressives
argued that the role of education was to facilitate the natural connection
between the curriculum and the child's interests.
John Dewey, in such works as The Child & the Curriculum
(1902), insisted that the guidance of the teacher "is not external
imposition. It is freeing the
life-process for its own most adequate fulfillment."[xiii]
Likewise G. Stanley Hall, president of Clark University, and father
of the child-study movement, argued that adolescents required less
regimentation and more freedom to experiment.
He noted that while the education of a young child should center
around "arbitrary memorization, drill, habituation, with only limited
appeal to the understanding" (2.451),
the adolescent required a fundamentally different approach.[xiv]
Since students at this age are prone to radical alternations of
mood, Hall argued that the educator must allow the adolescent to
experience the range of human expression in order to enable full
development and internalization of the standards of civilization.
The adolescent requires "greatly and sometimes suddenly
widened liberty, which nevertheless needs careful supervision and wise
direction, from afar and by indirect methods" (2:89-90).
Accordingly, "the drill methods of the preceding period must
be slowly relaxed and new appeals made to freedom and interest. . .
Individuality must have a longer tether" (2:453-54).
The end result will be a successful socialization as the youth's
desire for full individual expression is checked by an inner awareness of
the limitations of life: "But another voice is soon heard in the
soul, which says: Renounce and serve, life is short, powers and
opportunities are limited, suffering is needful to perfection, so obey,
find the joy of sacrifice, get only to give, live for others, subordinate
the will to live, to love, or to offspring. . . Henceforth the race, not
the self must become supreme" (2:303).
Social historians have linked Progressivism to the rise of
bureaucratic systems of organization in a wide variety of institutions. Recognizing that external control is always limited, late
nineteenth-century culture shifted its focus to the subject's
consciousness as a more effective site of discipline.
In this model, undisciplined
behavior is necessary to produce the internal mechanisms of discipline.
Henry's desertion enables him to develop the courage necessary to
be a good soldier, and granting adolescents widened liberty--that is
carefully supervised--will inevitably result in properly socialized
Henry's emergence as his own observer is paralleled in the reader.
As spectators and judges of Henry's thoughts and performances, we
participate in his disciplining, and to the extent that we concur with
Henry's judgment that he has become "a man," we are complicit in
the Progressive discourse of power. However, if those critics are correct who see Crane's text as
fundamentally ironic throughout, (a reading which seems even more likely
in the unrevised manuscript), then the relationship between Crane's novel
and his culture becomes more problematic.
If Henry's "plan for the utilization of a sin" indicates
that he remains self-deluded, it raises serious questions about the
Progressive project of discipline. Written
in a period of shifting paradigms, The Red Badge of Courage raises
the possibility that the cost of effective social control is the loss of
freedom to think outside the terms of Progressive ideology.
In this context, the terms of the long-standing critical debate
over Henry's moral growth must shift: Henry may not have become "a
man," but he has certainly become a good soldier, much less likely to
violate military discipline. Indeed,
Henry's acceptance of military discipline would eventually result in a
higher rank. In Crane's short
story "The Veteran," an aged Henry Fleming is retelling the
experiences of his first battle to a group of admirers.
His audience is amazed by his confession of fear, especially since
"they knew that he had ranked as an orderly sergeant, and so their
opinion of his heroism was fixed. None,
to be sure, knew how an orderly sergeant ranked, but then it was
understood to be somewhere just shy of a major-general's stars."[xv]
William T. Sherman, Home Letters of General Sherman, ed.
Mark De Wolfe Howe (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1909), 211.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "Regular and Volunteer
Officers," Atlantic Monthly 14 (September 1864): 350.
All subsequent quotations from this source will be indicated
parenthetically in the text.
Mark Twain, "The Private History of a Campaign That
Failed," Mark Twain: Tales, Speeches, Essays, and Sketches,
ed. Tom Quirk (New York: Penguin, 1994), 176-77.
Ellwood Bergey, Why Soldiers Desert from the United States
Army (Philadelphia: William F. Fell, 1903), 64.
All subsequent quotations from this source will be indicated
parenthetically in the text.
Gerald F. Linderman, Embattled Courage: The Experience of
Combat in the American Civil War (New York: The Free Press, 1987),
Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, ed. Donald
Pizer (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994), 6.
All subsequent quotations from this text will be indicated
parenthetically in the text.
These passages were deleted from the manuscript.
The text can be found in Henry Binder's edition of The Red
Badge of Courage (New York: Avon Books, 1987), 78.
Henry's thoughts concerning the lieutenant's praises appear in
the manuscript, but not in the Appleton first edition.
See the Binder edition of The Red Badge, 118.
This passage appears in the manuscript but not the Appleton
edition. It is reprinted
in an appendix to Pizer's edition of The Red Badge (pp.
Duane Doty and William T. Harris, A Statement of the Theory
of Education in the United States as Approved by Many Leading
Educators (1874), rpt. in David B. Tyack, ed., Turning Points
in American Educational History (Waltham, MA: Blaisdell
Publishing, 1967), 325.
Joseph M. Rice, The Public School System of the United
States (1893), rpt. in Tyack, Turning Points, 330.
John Dewey, The Child and the Curriculum (1902), rpt. in
John Dewey: The Middle Works, 1899-1924, ed. Jo Ann Boydston
(Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1976), 2:281.
G. Stanley Hall, Adolescence (New York: Appleton, 1904),
2:451. All subsequent
quotations from this source will be cited parenthetically in the text
by volume and page number.
Stephen Crane, "The Veteran," The Red Badge of
Courage, ed. Donald Pizer (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994), 171.