The novel’s first chapter includes a brief flashback in which Henry recalls his decision to leave his family farm and, despite the objections of his mother, enlist in the Union army. Henry is excited by the battle stories that have traveled from the front lines to his small town, but his mother does not care about the outcome of the war and simply wants to preserve her son from danger. When Henry gets ready to leave in his uniform, his mother is not happy but dismayed:
When he had stood in the doorway with his soldier’s clothes on his back, and with the light of excitement and expectancy in his eyes almost defeating the glow of regret for the home bonds, he had seen two tears leaving their trails on his mother’s scarred cheeks.
In this passage, Henry’s naive excitement contrasts with his mother’s wise caution. Henry’s mother may not have experienced war herself, but she is mature enough to know it’s nothing like what her son imagines. While Henry believes that he’s proving himself a man by enlisting, his inability to understand the risks as his mother does demonstrates his juvenile nature to the reader. Ultimately, by demonstrating his immaturity, the flashback sets up Henry’s journey toward manhood.
This flashback is also notable as a stylistic exception to the rest of the novel, which stays firmly planted in Henry’s day-to-day life as a soldier. The novel’s close third perspective, which emphasizes Henry’s claustrophobic and unrelentingly harsh life as a soldier, displays Crane’s commitment to Naturalism, a literary movement that focused on depicting reality exactly as it appeared. Only something as important as Henry’s relationship with his mother justifies a departure from this mode of writing.