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Postscripts to History

Stephen Crane’s Inspiration

June 2024
5min read

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.

A high school teacher and his students have found a real-life model for the soldiers and actions described in the greatest novel of the Civil War.

The next day the actual battle began with the 124th positioned a short distance west of Chancellorsville facing the advancing Rebels, next to the Plank Road and near an artillery battery. After about an hour of fighting there, the men moved to the right and fought a fierce battle, charging at Confederate troops coming at them through the woods and losing three color-bearers in succession. They fell back when they found they were unprotected on either side. Crane describes a similar scene, starting out in a field with a battery at the rear. His 304th charges into the woods into intense fire, loses its color sergeant (Henry Fleming picks up the flag), and falls back into open space without achieving its objective.

After this in the actual battle, the 124th wheeled right, took part in a second charge, with bayonets drawn, and drove off the Rebels. Prisoners were taken, cannon recovered, and soldiers from a nearby Pennsylvania regiment captured the enemy’s flag. Crane’s 304th makes a similar second charge, in which, with bayonets fixed and Henry Fleming carrying the flag, the men roll over the Southern position, fire on the Rebels as they break and run, take prisoners, and capture their colors.

Following this the actual 124th—as well as the fictional 304th—was withdrawn to the main line north of Chancellorsville. Other, lesser similarities also mark the day’s events for the two regiments. For instance, at Chancellorsville a sniper killed Gen. A. W. Whipple, commander of the 3d Division, III Corps; in Crane’s novel, Fleming’s commander, Grandpa Henderson, is similarly killed.

The history of the 124th was written by Col. Charles Weygant, and when he died, in 1909, his obituary in the Newburgh, New York, News stated that “it is … generally supposed that Col. Weygant’s book suggested to Stephen Crane the writing of his most powerful story The Red Badge of Courage. Young Crane had a brother … in Port Jervis and the author spent much of his early manhood in that neighborhood. It is known that he was familiar with Col. Weygant’s book.” Furthermore, as a teenager Crane attended the Hudson River Institute, in Claverack, New York, which Colonel Weygant had attended just before the Civil War, so Crane would almost certainly have known of the colonel’s exploits.

If, as is believed, Crane talked to old soldiers of the 124th in the park in Port Jervis, most, if not all, would have remembered and likely recounted the event that made the 124th locally famous—the bayonet charge at Chancellorsville.

Stephen Crane never said whether any one unit served as the model for the 304th, and perhaps that is just as well. His book is not the story of just one man in one battle; it is the story of a boy who confronts his fear and overcomes it. Nevertheless, Crane most likely did draw upon the experiences of the old soldiers in the park, retelling the momentous events of their youth and creating a story that has inspired others for generations.

Ironically, in 1983 the Common Council of Port Jervis voted to change the name of that park from Stephen Crane Memorial Park at Jervis Square to Orange Square Veterans Park, after some local citizens argued that The Red Badge of Courage was an antiwar novel that glorified cowardice and desertion and that “Stephen Crane did a disservice to the many honorable veterans when he wrote The Red Badge of Courage.” Wilson Turner, commander of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, complained that “Stephen Crane was not a veteran. He did not fight in the Civil War. He sat in the park and got information from the veterans that were there.” Turner didn’t know it, but his words summarize the enormous tribute that Crane’s novel paid to the local veterans.

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