Henry Fleming, a young soldier of 304th regiment, joined the Union army with wide-eyed ideas about the glory of battle and service to his country. On the eve of his first battle—per Word of God, the battle of Chancellorsville, though it's never specified in the narrative—he worries he will not have the fortitude to face combat. He does, in fact, flee from his regiment after going into combat, and after some disturbing encounters finally makes his way back. The battle isn't over, and Henry gets another chance to prove his courage.
Made into a film in 1951 starring Audie Murphy, written and directed by John Huston. Famous as a Troubled Production in which MGM took the film from Huston and whacked out a good 50 minutes or so, leaving it with only a 69-minute run time. Given that in the film Henry is seen writing a letter dated September 10, 1862, the battle in the movie would appear to be Antietam. The novel was also adapted as a first-season episode of the PBS children's series Wishbone, "A Terrified Terrier", in 1995.
This novel provides examples of:
- 0% Approval Rating: The rating the 304th Regiment gave to their commanding officer after he calls the entire regiment "mud diggers".
- Asskicking Equals Authority: In The Veteran, it's revealed that Henry gained the rank of sergeant through fighting.
- Babies Ever After: Old Henry decided to settle down after the war and have a family, with a grandson called Jim.
- Child Soldiers: A lot of soldiers. Henry, for example, is still in school.
- Coming-of-Age Story: Henry goes from callow youth to confident combat veteran.
- Determinator: When most of the Confederate force the 304th Regiment have to face runs away, five people stayed and kept fighting.
- Died Standing Up: Jim Conklin.
- Dirty Coward: Henry at first before Character Development turns him into a total badass.
- Grey-and-Gray Morality: The novel avoids discussing which side is right. Just that both sides are fighting. Stephen Crane goes even a step further and just call the Unions "blue" and Confederates "gray", except in dialogues such as when the cheerful soldier led Henry back to 304th regiment and called the Confederates "Johnnies", a derogatory slang at that time towards the Confederates.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Henry has a romantic notion of this at the beginning of the novel.
- In The Veteran, Old Henry tries to save the two old colts at the end of a burning barn. The roof collapses before he would've gotten out.
- Jumped at the Call: Henry, without realizing what he's doing until he's too deep in it. Considering it's The American Civil War, there were probably lots more.
- Narcissist: Henry at the beginning. Character Development changed that.
- Oh, Crap!: Many soldiers, including Henry, panic when the Confederates charge a second time. Also when Henry and Wilson overhear that their regiment will be used as Cannon Fodder.
- Redemption in the Rain: The last chapter of the book after Henry self-reflected on his past.It rained. The procession of weary soldiers became a bedraggled train, despondent and muttering, marching with churning effort in a trough of liquid brown mud under a low, wretched sky. Yet the youth smiled, for he saw that the world was a world for him, though many discovered it to be made of oaths and walking sticks. He had rid himself of the red sickness of battle. The sultry nightmare was in the past. He had been an animal blistered and sweating in the heat and pain of 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.
- Rule of Symbolism: Many things symbolize that nature does not care about humanity, such as:
- The decaying body of an Union soldier Henry found when he runs away.
- The clear skies after a battle.
- Sacrificial Lamb: Jim Conklin.
- Tattered Flag: In the movie adaption, Henry charged with the tattered Union flag. He captured the Dixie in the end, more tattered than the Union flag.
- Title Drop: Henry muses to himself as he walks with the wounded men away from the battle that he wished he was wounded too. If he had such a "red badge of courage" it would erase his cowardice, and prove he was a worthy man.
- Trope Codifier: For the War Is Hell theme and American realism as a genre.
- War Is Hell: This is the Civil War we're talking about, so wounds, death, intense pain and infection!
- We Have Reserves: When the general (presumably Joseph Hooker) ask an officer what regiment could become the Cannon Fodder:Officer: But there's th' 304th. They fight like a lot 'a mule drivers. I can spare them best of any.
Tropes unique to the John Huston film:
- Narrator: A completely unnecessary opening in which a narrator basically spells out the premise. After that, bits of narration taken directly from Crane's novel.
- Old Soldier: Jim is portrayed as a grizzled veteran with gray hair.
- Title Drop: A Confederate sentry tells Henry to take cover lest he get one of those "red badges" after the Confederate is compelled to shoot him.