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The column that the young soldier had seen marching so proudly to battle just moments before was now in wild retreat. Surrounded by running soldiers, the youth kept trying to find out what was going on. Finally he clutched one of the soldiers by the arm, and refused to let go. Angry and panicked, the man hit the young soldier fiercely on the head with the butt of his rifle.
The youth saw lightning and heard thunder. He fell down. He got up on his hands and knees, "like a babe trying to walk," and finally stood up. He was afraid to pass out in the middle of the field, because he might be in danger there. He decided to find a safe place; "He went tall soldier fashion." His wounds didn't hurt much, and the dripping blood felt cool and liquid. As he staggered along, scenes of home flashed before the young soldier's eyes. He remembered meals his mother cooked, and thought about the old swimming hole.
Then he heard a "cheery voice" saying, "Yeh seem t' be in a pretty bad way, boy?" The owner of the voice offers to help the young soldier find his regiment. The youth feels much less threatened by this man's questions than he was by those of the tattered man. As they walk, the cheery-voiced man tells the youth about the confusions of the day's battles; everyone was fighting everywhere.
As they walked along, the young soldier thought that the man with the cheery voice possessed "a wand of a magic kind. He threaded the mazes of the tangled forest.... Obstacles fell before him...." Finally they found the 304th New York. The man with the cheery voice grasped his hand warmly, and wishing him good luck, walked off. The young soldier realized that he had never seen the man's face-making the stranger seem extremely mysterious both to him and to us.
Who is this mysterious man? Is it only the young soldier who thinks
he possesses magical powers, or are we, too, supposed to see him as somewhat
It is ironic that when the youth finally receives a wound, a red badge of courage, it is inflicted by the butt-not the barrel-of a rifle, and by a retreating soldier in a panic. The young soldier is wounded by a man very much like himself. Not only had he also retreated, but he too had been maddened and panicked by another man's questions. Being wounded turns the young soldier's life around. He falls to the ground, seeing lightning and hearing thunder, almost like a revelation. Then he picks himself up, climbing first to his hands and knees like a baby, and decides to go "tall soldier fashion." The suggestion in this language is that the wound is like an experience of conversion. In addition, the image of the young soldier learning to stand like a baby indicates that he may be beginning all over again. The phrase "tall soldier fashion" may mean that the young soldier is looking for the right place to die, as the tall soldier did, but it also suggests that the young soldier has learned courage from his dead friend, and now behaves the way Jim did. (The young soldier carries himself carefully, as the tall soldier did when he was wounded.)
The man with the cheery voice who befriends him talks about different kinds of courage. He jokes that the wounded officer they pass won't boast about his reputation when they begin sawing off his leg, but he sympathizes with him too. The story he tells about Jack, the man in his regiment who was killed, resembles in some way the story of the young soldier and the tattered man, and the young soldier's experience with the soldier who wounded him. Jack, too, would not answer another man's questions, and when he turned angrily to tell the questioner to go to hell, he was killed.
This chapter contains striking descriptions of the chaos of the retreat, as well as some by now familiar imagery: war as "the red animal," the "blood-swollen god," the guns "shaking in black rage," the opposing soldiers as "the dragon," the men in retreat as "terrified buffaloes." (Soldiers fighting are often described as machines, but in trouble or discomfort they become animals.)