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Frightened soldiers run past him, and Henry tries to gather some information from them. One soldier hits him over the head with his rifle to get away from his grasp. Henry falls to the ground, almost fainting in pain. When he regains control, he begins walking "Tall Soldier fashion." His pain lessens, and he begins to reminisce about home. He thinks of his mother's cooking and remembers swimming with his schoolmates in a small pond. Soon he is overwhelmed with fatigue and thinks about finding a place to lie down and go to sleep. Henry then hears a cheery voice. It comes from a soldier who offers to help the Youth walk. The man talks continually about his day, telling about seeing his comrade killed and worrying about finding his regiment. The man assists Henry in returning to his regiment. He leaves Henry close to the campfire and disappears into the night. The Youth never looks at the man's face.
Chapter 12 is extremely important, for it contains the climax of the plot. Here Henry receives a wound, his "red badge of courage." Ironically, it comes from a frightened and fleeing soldier who hits the Youth on his head with his rifle. The pain is excruciating, and Henry falls to the ground. When he regains control and rises up, it is like there is a new Henry. The fleeing soldier who strikes the Youth is a symbol of Henry himself, who earlier fled from battle in a similar manner. On a symbolic level then, Henry is really hitting himself over the head, knocking some sense into himself. In fact, the wound helps the Youth greatly.
The "wounded" Henry no longer feels isolated from his fellow soldiers. He accepts help from the kind and cheerful soldier and allows him to lead him to his regiment. The Youth, however, never looks at the man's face. The guilt is still not diminished, but his return to his regiment foreshadows that things will improve for Henry. In truth, from this point forward in the novel, the Youth is on the road to recovery from his shame and depression.
It is important to notice that the cheerful soldier who helps Henry is nameless and faceless. He suddenly appears out of the darkness to offer the Youth assistance. He leads Henry towards his regiment. Symbolically, for Henry, it is a journey of self-discovery and a return to normalcy. When they arrive at camp, the cheerful stranger quickly disappears into the darkness, and the Youth no longer has anyone to lean on except himself.
Crane also writes this chapter with the same kind of strong realism that he has used earlier to dispel the glory of war and to show the mundane reality of it. The Youth has had a very long day. He is, above all else, exhausted. Crane also paints the war scene as a chaotic one. Instead of conducting themselves in an organized fashion as soldiers are taught to do, this army is in total disorganization. The foot soldiers wander around looking for their regiments. The officers seem to be of no help. The cheerful soldier summarizes the meaningless of war when he tells Henry that "there was shootin' here an' shootin' there. . .until I couldn't tell t' save m' soul which side I was on."