Gunfire is ever-present in The Red Badge of Courage, and Crane often describes exchanges of bullets using the language of dialogue or speech. Crane characterizes cannon fire as “stentorian speeches” and remarks, during a battle, that guns were "roaring without an instant’s pause for breath.” At several points, he figuratively describes guns as possessing voices:
The voices of the cannon were clamoring in interminable chorus.
The imagery of speech appeals to readers' auditory senses, helping them imagine the incredible noise of the battles Henry experiences. Personification is also at play here as well, since phrases like “stentorian speeches” and “pause for breath” imply that the guns have human qualities.
By comparing the noise of weapons to speech, Crane highlights the fact that gunfire is the only reliable information Henry receives about the course of the battle. Hearing the “speech” of the gunfire, he can deduce where the active fighting is occurring and ensure his own survival. By contrast, the Union army officers never tell their soldiers (and often don’t seem to know themselves) where the regiment is marching or when they will have to fight. Likewise, actual speech between Henry and his comrades is infrequent. It’s often too loud for the soldiers to hear each other; when they can speak, they often talk past each other, whether by exchanging dubious rumors, bragging about their exploits, or accusing each other of cowardice. Ultimately, this pattern of imagery and personification shows how the war machine dehumanizes soldiers, taking the power of speech away from men and giving it to weapons.
When describing the way Henry’s regiment marches across the landscape and moves in battle, Crane uses an extended metaphor to describe a group composed of hundreds of men as a single being. As the Confederate army approaches, Crane writes that “the sore joints of the regiment creaked as it painfully floundered into position to repulse.” Elsewhere, Crane remarks that the regiment “snorted and blew,” evoking a horse rather than a group of men. During one of the novel’s last battles, Crane describes a charge by writing:
The line fell slowly forward like a toppling wall, and, with a convulsive gasp that was intended for a cheer, the regiment began its journey.
This language applies not just to Henry’s particular regiment but the entire Union and Confederate armies. Describing one engagement, Crane writes that the two armies “exchanged blows in the manner of a pair of boxers.”
While this figurative language adds up to an extended metaphor over the course of the novel, it’s important to note that there are other literary devices at play here. When Crane says that the army moved “like a toppling wall,” he’s employing a simile. Likewise, there are repeated instances of auditory imagery—the “creak[ing] joints,” the “convulsive gasp,” and the “snort[ing] and blow[ing]” regiment—that create a tangible portrait of a monolithic army.
While Crane stays rooted in Henry’s perspective throughout The Red Badge of Courage, this extended metaphor allows the reader to briefly glimpse the scope of the battle. At the same time, while the image of the monolithic regiment stumbling from place to place is evocative and impressionistic, it doesn’t tell the reader much about the overall logistics of the battle. Crane is committed to keeping the reader almost as confused and ignorant as Henry, and this metaphor allows him to describe battle scenes without compromising that mood.
In addition, this ongoing metaphor emphasizes the profound insignificance of each individual soldier, one of the most shocking realizations Henry experiences as a soldier. Henry initially believes that he can win respect and even fame by exhibiting courage in battle. But he soon learns that, in this vast and mechanized war, individual bravery means little and survival depends on random luck. The metaphor of the monolithic army, in which individual men are subsumed into one large being, creates a tangible image of that horrible reality.