Confused and guilty after fleeing from his first experience of battle, Henry wanders into the woods. At first, the woods seem comfortingly beautiful, and Henry is happy to find himself in a small clearing. However, he then stumbles upon a Union soldier’s corpse. In a moment that foreshadows the other deaths Henry will witness in the novel, Crane describes the decaying corpse in detail:
The eyes, staring at the youth, had changed to the dull hue to be seen on the side of a dead fish. The mouth was open. Its red had changed to an appalling yellow. Over the gray skin of the face ran little ants.
This grotesque image captures Henry’s horror at encountering death up close for the first time. It also foreshadows the more personal experiences that will come soon after, namely the death of Jim Conklin, a soldier in Henry’s regiment. Just as this soldier appears to have died alone in the woods, Jim dies in another natural landscape (a meadow) after wandering away from a convoy of wounded men. Henry’s reaction in both cases—he’s momentarily stunned and then flees the terrifying spectacle—is also the same, connecting these two deaths. Though Henry doesn’t stay with Jim after he dies, there’s an implicit understanding that Jim's corpse will suffer the same fate as this one.
What changes between Henry’s discovery of the corpse and his final moments with Jim are his ideas about the meaning of war and the role of nature in his life. When Henry finds the dead soldier, he still believes that war is a noble endeavor in which heroic men can prove their bravery on the battlefield; he also sees nature as an essentially benevolent force that can provide a refuge for suffering soldiers—that’s why he entered the woods after fleeing the battlefield. The soldier’s corpse shows Henry for the first time that death in war isn’t always heroic; in fact, it’s often ignominious and pointless. Moreover, the swiftness with which animals like ants have begun to prey on the soldier’s body shows that far from providing protection and shelter, nature is cold and indifferent to human affairs.
Henry doesn’t immediately relinquish his misconceptions about war when he sees the soldier’s corpse. But because of this episode, he at least begins to question them. When he does eventually witness Jim’s death, he will not be able to rely on comforting fantasies about heroism or courage. Instead, he’ll have to confront the reality of death in war head-on.