Battle of Chancellorsville & Red Badge of Courage

March 1, 1863/2013
Volume 4, Issue 9 (125 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

The Battle of Chancellorsville and The Red Badge of Courage

March 1, 1863. In the Battle of Chancellorsville, fought from April 30 to May 6, 1863 near the village of Chancellorsville, Virginia, Union Army General Joseph Hooker‘s Army of the Potomac was twice the size of Confederate General Robert E. Lee‘s Army of Northern Virginia. And yet the Union lost the battle. Chancellorsville is considered Lee’s “perfect battle” because his audacious decision to divide his army under those circumstances resulted in a major victory. However, both sides suffered massive casualties, and Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson was mortally wounded by friendly fire, a loss that Lee said was like “losing my right arm.”Harold R. Hungerford’s essay “That Was at Chancellorsville: The Factual Framework of The Red Badge of Courage” sets forth why it is believed that The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane‘s classic and groundbreaking story of heroism and weakness in the face of war’s indifference to the fate of individuals, is based upon the Battle of Chancellorsville. Hungerford writes in part:
“Evidence of two sorts makes the initial hypothesis that Crane used Chancellorsville probable. In the first place, Crane said so in his short story “The Veteran,” which was published less than a year after The Red Badge. In this story he represented an elderly Henry Fleming [the name of the young protagonist in The Red Badge] as telling about his fear and flight in his first battle. ‘That was at Chancellorsville,’ Henry said. His brief account is consistent in every respect with the more extended account in The Red Badge; old Henry’s motives for flight were those of the young Henry, and he referred to Jim Conklin [a character who dies in The Red Badge] in a way which made it clear that Jim was long since dead.

Stephen Crane

Stephen Crane

“. . . Furthermore, the battle was [according to The Red Badge] the first major engagement of the year, occurring when the spring rains were nearly over. [And in the four years of the Civil War, the Battle of Chancellorsville is the only battle whose timing fits that description.]

“. . . [Moreover,] the battle in Crane’s novel is closely and continuously parallel to the historical Chancellorsville.”

“. . .This long recitation of parallels, I believe, demonstrates that Crane used Chancellorsville as a factual framework for his novel. . . .Why, with the whole Civil War available, should Crane have chosen Chancellorsville? Surely, in the first place, because he knew a good deal about it. Perhaps he had learned from his brother, ‘an expert in the strategy of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville’ (Beer, p. 47). More probably he had heard old soldiers talk about their war experiences while he was growing up. Many middle-aged men in Port Jervis [New York, where Crane lived as a young boy] had served in the 124th New York; Chancellorsville had been their first battle, and first impressions are likely to be the most vivid. It is hard to imagine that men in an isolated small town could have resisted telling a hero-worshiping small boy about the great adventure of their lives.

“Moreover, Chancellorsville surely appealed to Crane’s sense of the ironic and the colorful. The battle’s great charges, its moments of heroism, went only to salvage a losing cause; the South lost the war and gained only time from Chancellorsville; the North, through an incredible series of blunders, lost a battle it had no business losing. . . . And when the battle ended, North and South were just where they had been when it began. There is a tragic futility about Chancellorsville just as there is a tragic futility to The Red Badge.

“Finally, Chancellorsville served Crane’s artistic purposes. It was the first battle of the year and the first battle for many regiments. It was therefore an appropriate introduction to war for a green soldier in an untried regiment. . . .”

The Red Badge of Courage is not the only story associated with the Battle of Chancellorsville. F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby and other works, wrote an ironic short story entitled “The Night Before Chancellorsville” (1935), in which a prostitute relates how she and other prostitutes traveling by train, arrived at Chancellorsville, Virginia right in the midst of the Union retreat. The train was able to return to Washington, DC, but Nora is annoyed that the public are only interested in what happened to the army and not in the “attack” on the train. The story concludes, “And in the papers next day they never said anything about how our train got attacked or about us girls at all! Can you beat it?”
– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director


Donald Pizer, ed., The Red Badge of Courage, Norton Critical Edition, 147-9, 154, 156.

Shelby Foote, ed. “The Night Before Chancellorsville” and other Civil War Stories, 37-41.

The Conscription Act

On March 3, Congress passed the Conscription Act, the first draft ever enacted by Congress. The law applied to all able-bodied male citizens ages twenty to forty-five years old.

Enrollers went door to door in the spring of 1863 who, according to Carl Sandburg, “took the names of men and boys fit for the Army. Cripples, the deaf and dumb, the blind and other defectives were exempt. So were the only son of a widowed mother, the only son of aged and infirm parents, others having dependents. In a family where two or more sons of aged and infirm parents were drafted, the father if living, or if dead the mother, must say which son would stay home and which go to war. Also anyone having $300 cash, and willing to pay it as ‘bounty’ to a substitute, was exempt and could stay at home and laugh at the war.”

– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director


Carl Sandburg,  Abraham Lincoln, The Prairie Years and The War Years, 373-4.

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Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1863

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