Stephen Crane’s Inspiration

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For eight years Charles LaRocca, a high school history teacher in Orange County, New York, has worked with small groups of students on a research project aimed at determining if a specific local Union regiment was a model for the troops in Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage, which is known to be based roughly on the Civil War battle of Chancellorsville. First at O’Neill High School in Highland Falls, near West Point, and now at nearby Pine Bush High School, LaRocca and his students have searched through regimental histories, Crane archives in Newark, New Jersey, newspaper accounts, and numerous other historical sources. The students have combed all the existing biographies and studies of Crane that they could find. They talked to local historians, they visited the battlefield, and they studied the records of individual soldiers. Here is a summary of LaRocca’s report on what he and his students found:

The Red Badge of Courage, published in 1895, remains the great novel of the Civil War. Stephen Crane was annoyed by those who sought to pin down a source for his inspiration, but students of the war have long tried to discover a precise historical context within which he could have framed his work. We know he read extensively about the war and talked to veterans, but was there a specific unit that served as a basis for Crane’s fictitious 304th New York? In fact, there is considerable circumstantial evidence that one regiment more than any other inspired Crane.

Stephen Crane was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1871, but his family moved to Port Jervis, New York, in Orange County, in 1878. Local tradition has it that as a boy he liked to listen to veterans who gathered in the town park. Most of these men would have been former members of the 124th New York State Volunteers. An imposing monument to the Orange Blossoms, as the unit was called, still stands in the park.

More than a thousand Orange Blossoms left Orange County in the fall of 1862 to answer President Lincoln’s call for volunteers. They fought in most of the major engagements in the East, often where the battle was the heaviest, and among their number were five Medal of Honor winners. Like Crane’s unit, they first faced fire at Chancellorsville. No diary entry, letter, or conversation proves that these Orange Blossoms were the model for Crane’s work, but the pieces fall together to suggest it strongly.

First, there is a clue right in the novel’s title. The “red badge” refers to the wound suffered by the main character, Henry Fleming, but during the war the term red badge meant something else, as Crane would have known. The red badge was another name for the Kearny patch, a red diamond worn by the men of the 1st Division, III Corps, of the Union Army of the Potomac. Gen. Philip Kearny had devised the badge so that he could easily recognize the men of his command. The 124th wore the red badge; in fact, it was the only untried III Corps unit at Chancellorsville that ever wore the badge—just as Crane’s 304th had been untried before the battle he describes.

We know that the battle depicted in the book is Chancellorsville; Crane gives plenty of clues for that and confirms it in a later short story, “The Veteran,” in which a much older Henry Fleming says that it was at Chancellorsville that he first came under fire and ran away. The men of the 124th didn’t wear the red badge until after Chancellorsville, when they were transferred from the 3d to the 1st Division of the III Corps, but they then wore it proudly until the end of the war. There exist today two red badges that belonged to Pvt. James Conklin of the 124th, for whom Crane’s character Jim Conklin, who is killed in battle in the book, was named; the real James Conklin survived the war and returned to Orange County.

If Crane patterned his 304th on the real 124th, their actions should roughly coincide. They do. The first of the book’s two days of battle has the 304th marching and countermarching for the better part of the day and twice coming upon and repulsing the enemy. During the second of these attacks, Henry Fleming runs away. He spends the rest of the day wandering among the wounded, receives his injury at the hands of a fleeing Union soldier, who hits him with his rifle, and later is reunited with his 304th to find, much to his surprise, that the enemy has been successfully thrown back. The real 124th likewise marched and countermarched on Saturday, May 2, 1863, as Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles, commander of the III Corps, probed for the enemy across the front. The men of the 124th had one brief engagement when Sickles overtook the rear of Stonewall Jackson’s flanking Confederate column, and they later fell back in an attempt to halt the rout of the panic-stricken XI Corps. There is little doubt that the fleeing soldier who injures Henry Fleming represents one of the men of the XI Corps.