“The tall soldier turned and, lurching dangerously, went on. The youth and the tattered soldier followed, sneaking as if whipped, feeling unable to face the stricken man if he should again confront them. They began to have thoughts of a solemn ceremony. There was something rite-like in these movements of the doomed soldier….
“At last, they saw him stop and stand motionless. Hastening up, they perceived that his face wore an expression telling that he had at last found the place for which he had struggled. His spare figure was erect; his bloody hands were quietly at his side. He was waiting with patience for something that he had come to meet. He was at the rendezvous. They paused and stood, expectant….
“Finally, the chest of the doomed soldier began to heave with a strained motion. It increased in violence until it was as if an animal was within and was kicking and tumbling furiously to be free.”—Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)
Memorial Day (originally known as Decoration Day) began in the period after the Civil War to honor the dead from that conflict. By common agreement, Stephen Crane (1871-1900)—who was not even alive while the war was raging, and so never witnessed the events he described—produced the most vivid summary of the common soldier’s experience under fire.
That experience is, for Henry Fleming, far different from the romantic vision of glory he had expected. With chaos bursting all around him, he deserts his unit—only to find, when he links up with it again, that the “tall soldier” of this passage, his friend Jim Conklin, has been fatally wounded.
In reading the Library of America’s volume of Crane’s collected Prose and Poetry, I came across the short story “The Veteran.” I imagine that Crane wrote what was, in effect, a short coda to his most famous work to satisfy those who wanted to know what happened to his alternately vainglorious and confused protagonist.
In it, Fleming is identified as having fought at the Battle of Chancellorsville, a resounding Union defeat marked by confusion. In sharp contrast to the novel, where he is almost always referred to as “the youth,” Fleming is called by the omniscient narrator of the short story “the old man.”
In fact, at the time of this story, Fleming would be somewhere between his late 40s and mid 50s—not really what we would think of today as old. But the war has surely aged him, and in few instances so much as the death of Conklin, a sight horrible enough to haunt him the rest of his days.
In the most real sense, America remains as haunted by the Civil War as Henry Fleming is by Jim. The nation’s wounds were gaping and raw, especially in the South—enough so that, during Reconstruction, a balance could not be achieved between reconciliation and rights. We live with these consequences today, in the form of racial resentments that shows little sign of abating.
"Old" Henry Fleming dies putting out a fire in “The Veteran,” in an act that makes literal what Abraham Lincoln called the Civil War: “this fiery trial.” Even as we honor the soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice in the Civil War and all America’s other conflicts, it would do well to remember that victories on the battlefield are made necessary by peacetime political failures, before—and, sadly, after—the gunfire rages.
(The image accompanying this post comes from the 1951 film of The Red Badge of Courage, starring Audie Murphy, the most decorated combat soldier of World War II. His wartime memoir—adapted for the screen with Murphy playing himself—was entitled, appropriately enough, To Hell and Back. In the 26 years between his return from Europe and his death in a plane crash, he was afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder—a late casualty of the war.)