Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage borders between classic literature and Civil War battle narrative. In his unique style, he writes stories of battle without specifying names. In The Red Badge of Courage most characters are not distinguished by name, nor does Crane specify what part of the battlefield, what troops, or what actions he is writing about. He purposely avoids using real characters and creates a fictional regiment (the 304th New York Infantry) in order to focus the audience’s attention on the experience of the protagonist, Private Henry Fleming, and his comrades as they face their first battle. The purpose of the books was to engage readers in the chaos, emotion, and uncertainty of battle and the experiences of a common soldier within the maelstrom.
Of course, by specifying the battle highlighted in The Red Badge of Courage as the Battle of Chancellorsville, historians and scholars of literature have been trying to pick apart the details of the work to pinpoint specific regiments and actions that may have been used as inspiration. One thing is largely agreed upon: the action highlighted by Crane is the May 2-3, 1863 action in the woods around the Orange Turnpike (near the location of the present-day NPS visitor center). Beyond that there is a large amount of debate over details, the biggest debate being which regiment inspired Fleming and the 304th New York.
Two main arguments exist. Professor Perry Lentz argues that Crane used French’s Division of the US Second Corps as inspiration because Fleming’s experience matches closely with the historical record of that Division. The second argument, put forward in Charles LaRocca’s annotated version of The Red Badge of Courage, is that Fleming’s experience is based off of the 124th New York Infantry, a regiment Crane was familiar with in his youth and one that fought in the designated area.
Lentz carefully examines The Red Badge of Courage for clues to match with the historical record of the Battle of Chancellorsville. Contrary to the idea that Crane’s characters are swept up blindly in the fog of battle, Lentz argues that the characters see events clearly and react definitively within the environment of war. The events written by Crane are the result of his thorough research of the battle. He had many resources available to him, two main ones being Battles and Leaders and the Official Records, and Lentz argues that his research allowed him to construct a truly accurate portrayal of battle. This portrayal aligns most significantly with the experience of French’s Division.
The second argument is based firmly in Stephen Crane’s personal past, and is perhaps the more commonly held of the two. Crane grew up in the small New York town of Port Jervis, in the area where the 124th New York Orange Blossoms originated. It is suspected that he encountered veterans of that unit and listened to their stories during the periods he lived there and that these stories provided some inspiration for his writings in The Red Badge of Courage. Crane may have also focused his research on his local unit because it was familiar and meaningful to him. Analysis of the book against the experiences of the 124th New York at Chancellorsville shows some similarities. For example, the unit was present at Fredericksburg, but first saw major action at Chancellorsville, which fits in with the idea of Fleming and his comrades as green soldiers at that battle, and they fought within the woods north of the turnpike on May 3, 1863 as described in the novel.
Whether either argument is correct is, and probably will remain, unknown. It is also possible that elements of both are correct. It is possible that Crane did an immense amount of research on the Chancellorsville in order to accurately portray battle and the troop movements of May 2 and 3. It is also probable that he took inspiration from his encounters with Civil War veterans of the 124th New York and was inspired by the local history of where he grew up. In the end it is quite probable that he based his characters and their actions on a combination of these resources and inspirations, and in expressing his artistic license did not pick a single regiment or division to follow in the course of his work.
I am quite biased in favor of the 124th NY argument because I also grew up in that same area and thus have heard this explanation through my own childhood. If you would like to look into the subject farther and form your own opinion on the debate, check out these works:
La Rocca, Charles J. The Red Badge of Courage: An Historically Annotated Edition. Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 1995.
Lentz, Perry. Private Fleming at Chancellorsville: The Red Badge of Courage and the Civil War. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006.
Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies. She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012. Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate. She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War. In addition, Kathleen has been a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park since 2010 and has worked on various other publications and projects.