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Henry Fleming, usually referred to in the novel as the Youth, is a young man who joins the Union army during the Civil War, dreaming of heroism. He is quickly disillusioned about the war effort. At first he struggles with his fear that he will desert during fighting. When he does leave the battle front, he must struggle with his guilt and shame over that desertion.
The Youth's fear and sense of shame are the most significant obstacles to the Youth's gaining a secure sense of selfhood as a man. The battlefront itself becomes Henry's teacher. Every time the Youth goes out to fight, he finds out something more about himself.
The crisis of the novel occurs when the Youth faces battle and runs. This event occurs fairly early in the novel (Chapter 6) and is followed by an exploration of his guilt and shame about this desertion. The actual climax occurs in Chapter 12, when Henry receives a wound, his "red badge of courage." Ironically, this wound is inflicted by a fellow soldier who is frightened and fleeing from battle. When Henry tries to stop him to gain some information about what is going on in the battle, the soldier hits the Youth over the head with his rifle. From this point forward, however, things begin to sort out for Henry. He returns to his regiment, conquers his fear, goes back into battle, and even becomes an encourager to his fellow soldiers. In the end, Henry accepts himself as a human being, capable of weaknesses, and forgives himself for his previous desertion.
The novel ends in comedy with Henry overcoming his fear and sense of shame. During the war effort, he realizes and accepts his own humanity. At the beginning of the novel, he has an idealized notion of war, gained from reading the epic poetry of Homer. By the end of the novel, the Youth has a realistic notion that a warrior is a limited and ambivalent human being. He accepts himself as a man, in spite of his weaknesses.