Stephen Crane’s Inspiration
May/June 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 3
A high school teacher and his students have found a real-life model for the soldiers and actions described in the greatest novel of the Civil War.
The next day the actual battle began with the 124th positioned a short distance west of Chancellorsville facing the advancing Rebels, next to the Plank Road and near an artillery battery. After about an hour of fighting there, the men moved to the right and fought a fierce battle, charging at Confederate troops coming at them through the woods and losing three color-bearers in succession. They fell back when they found they were unprotected on either side. Crane describes a similar scene, starting out in a field with a battery at the rear. His 304th charges into the woods into intense fire, loses its color sergeant (Henry Fleming picks up the flag), and falls back into open space without achieving its objective.
After this in the actual battle, the 124th wheeled right, took part in a second charge, with bayonets drawn, and drove off the Rebels. Prisoners were taken, cannon recovered, and soldiers from a nearby Pennsylvania regiment captured the enemy’s flag. Crane’s 304th makes a similar second charge, in which, with bayonets fixed and Henry Fleming carrying the flag, the men roll over the Southern position, fire on the Rebels as they break and run, take prisoners, and capture their colors.
Following this the actual 124th—as well as the fictional 304th—was withdrawn to the main line north of Chancellorsville. Other, lesser similarities also mark the day’s events for the two regiments. For instance, at Chancellorsville a sniper killed Gen. A. W. Whipple, commander of the 3d Division, III Corps; in Crane’s novel, Fleming’s commander, Grandpa Henderson, is similarly killed.
The history of the 124th was written by Col. Charles Weygant, and when he died, in 1909, his obituary in the Newburgh, New York, News stated that “it is … generally supposed that Col. Weygant’s book suggested to Stephen Crane the writing of his most powerful story The Red Badge of Courage. Young Crane had a brother … in Port Jervis and the author spent much of his early manhood in that neighborhood. It is known that he was familiar with Col. Weygant’s book.” Furthermore, as a teenager Crane attended the Hudson River Institute, in Claverack, New York, which Colonel Weygant had attended just before the Civil War, so Crane would almost certainly have known of the colonel’s exploits.
If, as is believed, Crane talked to old soldiers of the 124th in the park in Port Jervis, most, if not all, would have remembered and likely recounted the event that made the 124th locally famous—the bayonet charge at Chancellorsville.
Stephen Crane never said whether any one unit served as the model for the 304th, and perhaps that is just as well. His book is not the story of just one man in one battle; it is the story of a boy who confronts his fear and overcomes it. Nevertheless, Crane most likely did draw upon the experiences of the old soldiers in the park, retelling the momentous events of their youth and creating a story that has inspired others for generations.
Ironically, in 1983 the Common Council of Port Jervis voted to change the name of that park from Stephen Crane Memorial Park at Jervis Square to Orange Square Veterans Park, after some local citizens argued that The Red Badge of Courage was an antiwar novel that glorified cowardice and desertion and that “Stephen Crane did a disservice to the many honorable veterans when he wrote The Red Badge of Courage.” Wilson Turner, commander of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, complained that “Stephen Crane was not a veteran. He did not fight in the Civil War. He sat in the park and got information from the veterans that were there.” Turner didn’t know it, but his words summarize the enormous tribute that Crane’s novel paid to the local veterans.