Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

The Red Badge of Courage: A New Kind of Realism


The Lesson


Civil War-era portrait of a Federal soldier.

Civil War-era portrait of a Federal soldier.

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory.

Infantry, artillery, cavalry, panic-stricken cattle, accompanied with the shrieks of the wounded and groans of the dying, with a hail of shells from Jackson's guns and serenaded by the rebel yell, with officers cursing in a chaotic state, was an experience I will never forget."
Private Nathaniel Bierly, 148th Pennsylvania at Chancellorsville on the United States Civil War Center, a link from the EDSITEment resource Center for the Liberal Arts

"The Red Badge impels the feeling that the actual truth about a battle has never been guessed before…"
Harold Frederic, London editor of the New York Times, January 12, 1896 on the Red Badge Home Page of the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia

One early reviewer declared that The Red Badge of Courage "impels the feeling that the actual truth about a battle has never been guessed before." Many readers recognized something new in Stephen Crane's depiction of war. The point of view—telling the tale through the eyes and thoughts of one soldier—contributed to the effect, but was not novel. As told by Crane, the experiences of a single soldier in the field (Henry Fleming) are reflected in a stream of impressions and images that communicate the chaos and movement of war and the lack of certainty day to day. Like his readers, Crane's expectations of "actual truth" had been shaped by newspapers and documentary reports, especially in photographs and the drawings of witnesses. The novel's success reflects the birth of a modern sensibility; today we feel something is true when it looks like the sort of thing we see in newspapers or on television news. Gone are the trappings of romance and poetry and all the old ways of memorializing battle that had come to seem increasingly artificial, unreal. Increase your students' understanding of Crane's influences and how the novel's style helped convey a new realism.

Note: This lesson may be taught either as a stand-alone lesson or as a companion to the complementary EDSITEment lesson The Red Badge of Courage: A New Kind of Courage.

Guiding Questions

  • What connections can be made between The Red Badge of Courage and paintings, photographs, and first-hand accounts of the Civil War?
  • What elements of Crane's style in The Red Badge of Courage created a sense of realism?

Learning Objectives

  • Compare specific excerpts from The Red Badge of Courage to first-hand accounts of Civil War battles, in text and images.
  • List elements of Crane's style in The Red Badge of Courage that contribute to its realism.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Download the Master PDF. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of any handouts you plan to use in class.
  • This lesson is intended for students who have completed their reading of The Red Badge of Courage.
  • Many of the concepts in this lesson were developed based on the essay Imaging the Civil War from The Red Badge of Courage site on the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia. Reading it will provide you with very useful background information. The editor's preface to the exhibit also provides excellent background on the novel.
  • Plan the best way to share the images used in Activity 2 and Activity 3, such as by downloading and printing them, using a presentation system, or even placing computers in the front of the classroom.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Something New: A Brief Introduction

Critics and contemporaries of Stephen Crane recognized in his particular brand of realism something surprising and new. Helping students identify the stylistic elements that made such a striking impression on readers is the primary goal of this lesson. In the following brief introductory activity, share with the class excerpts (or complete articles, if desired) from early reviews of the novel to establish the immediate recognition by early readers of its originality, a recognition more difficult for us to experience now since Crane's techniques have become commonplace. Then ask students to theorize about the stylistic elements of The Red Badge of Courage that contributed to the striking impression it made.

"Something new." "Never been guessed before." "A very fresh note." The critics agreed there was something novel going on here. Many books about war, some quite realistic, had already been written. First-person narration was not unusual. What was fresh in Crane's approach?

Activity 2. Vivid Imagery

Early reactions to The Red Badge of Courage were not unlike the responses of visitors to the famous exhibit of Civil War photographs mounted by Mathew Brady in 1862. According to the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory in a biographical note about Brady:

In 1862, Brady shocked America by displaying his photographs of battlefield corpses from Antietam, posting a sign on the door of his New York gallery that read, "The Dead of Antietam." This exhibition marked the first time most people witnessed the carnage of war. The New York Times said that Brady had brought "home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war."

The remark that the exhibit brought "home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war" mirrors Frederic's comment, "The Red Badge impels the feeling that the actual truth about a battle has never been guessed before …" There is good reason for the similarity. Crane—who had no military experience—is generally believed to have turned to the photography of Matthew Brady and his peers in preparing to write the novel. He was influenced not only by the content but also by the striking immediacy of the images.

Ask students to compare the following paintings of Civil War subjects. Begin by asking them to decide which of the following adjectives (and any they would add) apply to each image: anonymous, biased, courageous, famous, heroic, realistic, romanticized, static, unbiased, vivid.

Which painting is closer in "tone" to The Red Badge of Courage? In what way?

Now ask students to compare each of the following photographs to the accompanying passage from The Red Badge of Courage. Which of the words above would they apply to each image and passage (anonymous, biased, courageous, famous, heroic, realistic, romanticized, static, unbiased, vivid)? Would they add any words? Discuss the likelihood that Crane was influenced by these or similar photographs.

  • Photo: The Dead at Antietam from Selected Civil War Photographs, an exhibit of the EDSITEment resource American Memory (Alexander Gardner 1821-1882, photographer)
    Passage: The little narrow roadway now lay lifeless. There were over-turned wagons like sun-dried boulders. The bed of the former torrent was choked with the bodies of horses and splintered parts of war machines. (From Chapter 12 of The Red Badge of Courage)
  • Photo: Dead Confederate soldier with gun from Selected Civil War Photographs, an exhibit of the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory
    Passage: He lay upon his back staring at the sky. He was dressed in an awkward suit of yellowish brown. The youth could see that the soles of his shoes had been worn to the thinness of writing paper, and from a great rent in one the dead foot projected piteously. And it was as if fate had betrayed the soldier. In death it exposed to his enemies that poverty which in life he had perhaps concealed from his friends.

    The ranks opened covertly to avoid the corpse. The invulnerable dead man forced a way for himself. The youth looked keenly at the ashen face. The wind raised the tawny beard. It moved as if a hand were stroking it. He vaguely desired to walk around and around the body and stare; the impulse of the living to try to read in dead eyes the answer to the Question. (From Chapter 3 of The Red Badge of Courage)

How does this imagery contribute to the realism of the novel?

For the sake of discussion only, assume for a moment that Crane was actually looking at the The Dead at Antietam when he composed the passage compared with it above. The photograph and passage are not identical; in that sense then, the passage is not "realistic." Does it still communicate realism? How? What's the difference between "realistic" and "realism?"

Challenge students to locate additional passages they think could have been influenced by photographs. What about the passage is "photographic?" If desired, students can browse or use the search function to locate additional relevant photos from Selected Civil War Photographs on the EDSITEment resource American Memory.

Activity 3. "The Attack and the Repulse" versus Chapter 5

The Red Badge of Courage introduced a combination of style, content, and point of view representing a new approach to realism. Help your students appreciate more fully the novelty of Crane's method by comparing it with a poem taking a more traditional approach. Share with your students "The Attack and the Repulse" by Edward C. Judson (p. 121 and p. 122 of "Poetical Pen-Pictures of the War Selected from Our Union Poets"), available through The Nineteenth Century in Print Periodicals collection of the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory. "The Attack and the Repulse" describes an assault that took place during the Battle of Cheat Mountain (Va.), fought on September 12, 1861. The collection in which the poem was found was published the next year, while the war was still being vigorously contested.

Download, copy, and distribute the chart "'The Attack and the Repulse' and Chapter 5 of The Red Badge of Courage" on pages 1-2 of the Master PDF. Have students look through "The Attack and the Repulse" and Chapter 5 of The Red Badge of Courage carefully as they find evidence from each to complete the chart. (NOTE: In "The Attack and the Repulse," a simoon-also spelled "simoom"-refers to a hot, dry, dust- and sand-bearing wind common to North Africa and the Arabian peninsula.) When they have finished, refer to student answers as you and your students make comparisons between the two works. Crane's novel cannot be understood on McClurg's terms. It doesn't take the kind of stand on the values with which McClurg was concerned. For example, because Henry commits an act of cowardice doesn't mean he has no courage or doesn't value courage. Neither does it mean he's not patriotic even if patriotism is not the motivation for his bravery.

Activity 4. One Day in the Life of a Soldier

The Red Badge of Courage presents an individualized, blow-by-blow account that reproduces the welter of sequential impressions of battle without an overarching narrative that fills in all the gaps for readers. So, for example, the novel would not be very helpful in mapping out the military strategy and progress of the Battle of Chancellorsville even if nothing within it contradicts historical fact. The novel's realism does not involve reproducing historical truth, but in putting the reader in the place of one soldier during one battle. And indeed, a particular Civil War soldier in the heat of the battle must have known precious little about the total picture of the day's events.

Break up the class into small groups of about four to six students. Assign four to six of the following Winslow Homer sketches (all available via a link from the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia) to each group, or allow students to choose their own. (The variety available enables each group to receive a different grouping, if desired.):

Each group should begin by putting its images in a logical sequential order to match the events of a hypothetical day of battle. Then, keeping in mind the Crane passages associated with the photographs in Activity 3, above (review them, if desired), each student in the group composes a brief first-person passage describing the contents of one sketch, as if he/she were a witness to the event as it happened. As with Crane, students do not need to be literal in their description. Many of the adjectives students applied to the Crane passages in Activity 3, above, should also be applicable to the passages students create in this activity.

Have each group read their passages in the sequential order as if they are one piece. When the readings are done, lead a discussion including questions such as:

  • When read together, what impression of a day of battle did the passages communicate?
  • With more of such excerpts, could one truly convey the impression of a day of battle?
  • When read together, did the passages create a kind of realism?
  • Do the passages tell who won? What do they tell?
  • How much of the strategy of the battle is revealed? What is revealed?

Challenge students to locate passages in the text bearing a resemblance to any they composed. What is the effect of using a literary strategy that favors vivid moments and offers little connecting narrative?

Activity 5. The Red Badge of Courage and First-Hand Accounts

In this activity, students will contrast and compare some specific elements of style in The Red Badge of Courage to first-hand accounts of the Civil War. This can be done in the whole-class setting, or each comparison can be assigned to one of five groups for analysis and eventual presentation to the class.

First Person

Have students locate a brief passage (about a paragraph) from The Red Badge of Courage that describes a confused battle scene. Contrast it with the following third-person passage from The Successes and Failures of Chancellorsville by General Alfred Pleasonton, from "The Century Illustrated Monthly" Magazine, May 1886 to October 1886, located in The Nineteenth Century in Print Periodicals collection of the EDSITEment resource American Memory. Pleasonton's account—like Crane's—is action-packed and quite specific. Its perspective, however, is wider and it is written in the third person.

Shots were fired at hazard in every direction. The First and Third Virginia regiments, no longer recognizing each other, charge upon each other mutually; Stuart's mounted men, generally so brave and so steadfast, no longer obey the orders of their officers, and gallop off in great disorder. At last quiet is restored, and the brigade finally reaches Spotsylvania Court House, while the small band which has caused so much alarm to Stuart was quietly retiring to Chancellorsville.

Which passage comes closest to giving the reader the feeling he is actually experiencing the event? In what ways?

A Blow-by-Blow Description

Have students locate a brief passage (about a paragraph) from The Red Badge of Courage that offers a blow-by-blow description of events in a battle. Contrast it with the letter from Peter Boyer to his father, written some time in May 1863 and accessible on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Valley of the Shadow, which summarizes the letter this way: "Boyer provides a description of the Chancellorsville battle in Virginia." Boyer relates an experience that happened in "the thickest of the fight." What do learn from him about "the thickest of the fight?" What do we learn from Crane's passage?

Vivid Imagery

Have students locate a brief passage (about a paragraph) from The Red Badge of Courage that offers vivid imagery to describe events in a battle. Contrast it with The Artillery at Hazel Grove, a description of one small part of the Chancellorsville battle that emphasizes military strategy (from the United States Civil War Center, a link from the EDSITEment resource Center for the Liberal Arts). The Artillery at Hazel Grove is very specific in its description of the movements of troops and equipment. What is its purpose (defense of the writer's actions during the battle)? What is Crane's purpose? How does each passage differ in its effect on the reader?

A Minimum of Linking Narrative

Have students locate a brief passage (about a paragraph) from The Red Badge of Courage that describes the course of an assault with a minimum of linking narrative. Contrast it with the following excerpt (written in the first person) from "Chancellorsville," a first-hand account of the battle from the Confederate point of view, from Chapter VIII of Reminiscences of the Civil War by John B.Gordon, available on Shotgun's Home of the American Civil War, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Center for the Liberal Arts.

While the battle was progressing at Chancellorsville, near which point Lee's left rested, his right extended to or near Fredericksburg. Early's division held this position, and my brigade the right of that division; and it was determined that General Early should attempt, near sunrise, to retake the fort on Marye's Heights, from which the Confederates had been driven the day before. I was ordered to move with this new brigade, with which I had never been in battle, and to lead in that assault; at least, such was my interpretation of the order as it reached me. Whether it was my fault or the fault of the wording of the order itself, I am not able to say; but there was a serious misunderstanding about it. My brigade was intended, as it afterward appeared, to be only a portion of the attacking force, whereas I had understood the order to direct me to proceed at once to the assault upon the fort; and I proceeded. As I was officially a comparative stranger to the men of this brigade, I said in a few sentences to them that we should know each other better when the battle of the day was over; that I trusted we should go together into that fort, and that if there were a man in the brigade who did not wish to go with us, I would excuse him if he would step to the front and make himself known. Of course, there was no man found who desired to be excused, and I then announced that every man in that splendid brigade of Georgians had thus declared his purpose to go into the fortress. They answered this announcement by a prolonged and thrilling shout, and moved briskly to the attack. When we were under full headway and under fire from the heights, I received an order to halt, with the explanation that the other troops were to unite in the assault; but the order had come too late. My men were already under heavy fire and were nearing the fort. They were rushing upon it with tremendous impetuosity. I replied to the order that it was too late to halt then, and that a few minutes more would decide the result of the charge. General Early playfully but earnestly remarked, after the fort was taken, that success had saved me from being court-martialed for disobedience to orders.

What is the purpose of Gordon's account? Crane's?

In the Style of Documentary Reportage

Have students locate a brief passage (about a paragraph) from The Red Badge of Courage that offers writing in the style of documentary reportage (a kind of "you are there" approach that recounts events by letting people and events speak for themselves through the liberal use of quotations, a focus on details, and a lack of commentary). Compare it to the following excerpt from an English journalist's reports about the Union troops at the Battle of Bull Run, on Page 741 of Recollections of the Civil War - V by Sir William Howard Russell, Ll.D., Special Correspondent of "The Times" (London), available via a link from the EDSITEment resource American Memory.

At that very moment Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Seward were passing through the ruc'k of the straggling debris. The President soon had a striking proof of the terrible disorganization. An officer of the regular army was endeavoring to get the crowd in Fort Corcoran into order. He was menaced with death, because he threatened to have an officer of the Sixty-ninth shot for disobeying his orders.

The men of the battalion rushed to the President and complained that Sherman—for it was he—had insulted their officer. When the President inquired into the cause of the tumult Sherman replied: "I told the officer that if he refused to obey my orders I would shoot him on the spot! I repeat it now, sir; if I remain in command here, and any man refuses to obey my orders, I will shoot him on the spot." This firmness in the presence of the President overawed the mutineers, and they set about the work that Sherman had ordered them to execute.

How do the passages resemble one another? What differences are found?

Activity 6. A Day in the Life of _______

Now students can try creating a first-person account that employs the basic stylistic characteristics of The Red Badge of Courage. They can start with a series of five or more images about a specific event: original sketches, family photographs, historical images, or images from magazines and newspapers. Students then create their own illustrated, impressionistic account of a particular event. Encourage students to share their work through a display of images and writing, posting on a bulletin board either real or virtual, or a reading.

Extending The Lesson

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Novels
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Internet skills
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Using primary sources
  • Visual analysis
  • MMS (AL)


Activity Worksheets