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Ambivalence, self-delusion, fear. Henry Fleming feels all of them. Fleming, or the youth as he's called, is the fictional hero of Stephen Crane's classic novel, "The Red Badge of Courage." More than a century ago, it was one of the first American novels to look at the psychological impact of combat.

NPR's Elizabeth Blair spotlights Henry Fleming for our series, In Character.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: When "The Red Badge of Courage" was first published in the 1890s, some Civil War veterans were amazed at how Henry Fleming seemed to feel almost exactly the way they did in battle. Michael Shaefer is an English professor at the University of Central Arkansas.

Professor MICHAEL SHAEFER (English, University of Central Arkansas): There are even stories of veterans of the Civil War writing in to newspapers saying on, I'm so glad to see Steve Crane publishing this because he and I were in the same regiment, and he's a good guy.

BLAIR: But they were mistaken. Stephen Crane wasn't even born when the Civil War ended, but Civil War veterans were still alive when he was writing, and it's almost certain that Crane talked to them about their experiences.

In many ways, Henry Fleming is a typical raw recruit and a typical teenager. When he joins the Union Army, he's got big ideas of what glorious battles await him, and he's eager to impress his friends and a brown-haired girl he likes, but pretty quickly, he questions himself and his courage.

In 1951, John Houston made a film version of "Red Badge." Henry Fleming was played by Audie Murphy, who in real life was the most decorated U.S. combat soldier of World War II.

(Soundbite of movie "The Red Badge of Courage")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) How do you know you won't run when the time comes?

Mr. AUDIE MURPHY (Actor): (As Henry Fleming) Run, me? Well, plenty of good enough men thought they was going to do great things before the fight, but when the time come, they skedaddle.

Prof. SHAEFER: He's afraid of being afraid, so you know, on the eve of battle, he's wondering what am I going to do? Am I going to, am I going to run? Am I going to stand and fight? Are my friends going to see that I'm a man, that I'm brave, or are they going to see that I'm a coward?

BLAIR: Stephen Crane most likely based "The Red Badge of Courage" on one of the bloodiest battles in the Civil War, in Chancellorsville, Virginia.

Mr. JOHN HENNESSEY (Historian, National Park Service): If you look off to our left and right, you can't see 25 yards in either direction.

BLAIR: Walking through the thick, dense woods where the Battle of Chancellorsville took place, John Hennessey, a historian with the National Park Service, says the most intense fighting began on May 3, 1863.

Mr. HENNESSEY: And on that morning, in about six hours of fighting, about 18,000 men would fall, killed and wounded. Now if you do the math, that comes to about one man every second.

BLAIR: The army, writes Stephen Crane, was helpless in the matted thickets. Henry's neck was quivering with nervous weakness. The muscles of his arms felt numb and bloodless. When Henry sees other soldiers running, he runs himself, like a rabbit.

Crane's prose echoes real accounts of what happened at Chancellorsville. John Hennessey found a letter by a Union soldier watching his comrades run away:

Mr. HENNESSEY: He said: The retreat was headlong. They had thrown away everything that was loose: guns, knapsacks, caps and many had no coat or blouse. They were crazed and fought to escape, as though the enemy were close to them. We were ordered to stop them, but we might as well have tried to stop a cyclone. They dived through our line regardless of our guns and bayonets.

BLAIR: Not only does Henry run, but he justifies his running in his head. He sees a squirrel and throws a pine cone at it. The squirrel runs away.

Mr. PAUL SORRENTINO (Professor, Virginia Tech): And Henry thinks aha, if it's natural for the squirrel to run away, it must be natural for me to have run away, as well.

BLAIR: Paul Sorrentino is a professor at Virginia Tech who's writing a biography of Stephen Crane. He says Henry Fleming is a complex character. He both pities and envies the other soldiers who stayed and fought. He feels guilty that he left but superior that he made the natural decision to save himself.

Mr. SORRENTINO: It's a story in which we have a boy whose thoughts are constantly going back and forth between clarity and vagueness about what is war all about, what does it mean to be brave, did I do the right thing?

BLAIR: And even though Fleming questions himself on what seems like every page of "The Red Badge of Courage," he can't seem to set himself straight. While he's separated from his regiment, he comes across more soldiers fleeing. In a panic, one of them hits Henry on the head with the butt of his rifle. Later, Henry finds his regiment again.

(Soundbite of film, "The Red Badge of Courage")

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Henry Fleming.

Mr. MURPHY: Yeah, it's me.

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) Well, well, old boy. By ginger, I'm glad to see you. I gave you up for a goner. I thought you was dead, sure enough.

Mr. MURPHY: I've had an awful time. I've been all over, way over on the right, and I got separated from the regiment, terrible fighting over there, and I got shot.

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) Got shot?

Mr. MURPHY: Yeah, I got shot in the head.

Mr. JOE GALLOWAY (Co-author, "We Were Soldiers Once … And Young"): He was inventing all sorts of excuses for his own cowardice in the face of enemy fire.

BLAIR: That's Joe Galloway, co-author of the book "We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young." As a war correspondent in Vietnam, he was with the 7th Cavalry at the Ia Drang Valley when they were surrounded by 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers. Galloway says there have been Henry Flemings in every war.

Mr. GALLOWAY: Korea is rife with instances of guys who shot themselves in the foot with their own rifle just so they could get out of combat. They were willing to do that or willing to have a friend shoot them in the leg, anything because they were absolutely terrified.

BLAIR: By the end of "The Red Badge of Courage," Henry Fleming is transformed from the scared youth who runs to someone outraged and hungry to fight. Stephen Crane writes that Henry lost sense of everything but his hate, his desire to smash into pulp the glittering smile of victory, which he could feel upon the faces of his enemies.

Park Service historian John Hennessey found this entry from a real soldier who fought at Chancellorsville:

Mr. HENNESSEY: My two tent mates were wounded, and after that I acted like a madman. I was stronger than I had been before, and a kind of desperation seized me. I snatched a gun from the hands of a man who was shot through the head as he staggered and fell. At other times I would've been horror-struck and could not have moved, but at this time I jumped over dead men with as little feeling as I would a log.

BLAIR: "The Red Badge of Courage" has been called a coming-of-age novel, but there's been debate about what Stephen Crane is saying about courage, heroism and maturity. At the end, Crane no longer calls Henry Fleming the youth, but rather a man. Joe Galloway isn't sure that's true.

Mr. GALLOWAY: I'm not sure what war really makes you, except sad. I don't know that it makes you a man or that the army way is a way to make yourself a man. That's an awful high price to pay. There's a very steep learning curve in combat.

BLAIR: Stephen Crane brought his fictional Henry Fleming back to life in a later work called "The Veteran." Now an old man, Henry admits that he ran and that he was afraid: I thought the sky was falling down. I thought the world was coming to an end. You bet I was scared. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

SEABROOK: There are clips from the movie version of "Red Badge of Courage" at npr.org, also a conversation about In Character and the hero Henry Fleming.

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