When recalling his decision to join the Union Army, Henry makes an allusion to the tales of classic warfare preserved in Greek and Roman texts. Describing the rumors he heard about the Civil War battles before enlisting, Henry says:
They might not be distinctly Homeric, but there seemed to be much glory in them. He had read of marches, sieges, conflicts, and he had longed to see it all.
Here, Henry is referencing stories like the Iliad, an epic poem by the Greek bard Homer. Homer’s stories featured larger-than-life war heroes and emphasized individual courage and bravery in battle. Those stories are the basis of Henry’s understanding of war and his expectations for life as a soldier in the Union army: he explicitly hopes that the Civil War will resemble a “Greeklike struggle.” Of course, Henry’s imagination of war couldn’t be more different from the reality of modern war, in which he is both subjected to brutality and completely unable to distinguish himself as a hero. Accordingly, this allusion emphasizes Henry’s naivete at the beginning of the novel.
The novel also alludes to classical literature when describing Henry’s mother’s less-than-positive reaction to his enlistment:
She had disappointed him by saying nothing whatever about returning with his shield or on it.
Here, Crane is alluding to a myth about the warlike ancient Greek state of Sparta. When Spartan men headed off to battle, their mothers warned them to come home with their shields (as victors) or on their shields (as corpses). By refusing to say anything of the sort, Henry’s mother not only deflates his naive expectations of battle but demonstrates her superior care and common sense. She may not have experienced war herself, but she knows it’s nothing like what her son imagines.
These allusions are also acts of authorial commentary. By poking fun at Henry’s belief in these classical tales, Crane contrasts ancient traditions that prioritized drama over realism with his own mode of writing, which emphasized the bleak indignities of war. As a leader of the nascent Naturalist movement, which strove for realism over all else, Crane uses allusion to argue that The Red Badge of Courage is very different from previous literary depictions of war.