Throughout The Red Badge of Courage, Crane uses monsters as a motif to characterize both the Union and Confederate armies, as well as war itself. At the beginning of one of the first marches Henry experiences, Crane writes:
A moment later the regiment went swinging off into the darkness. It was now like one of those moving monsters wending with many feet. The air was heavy, and cold with dew. A mass of wet grass, marched upon, rustled like silk.
Even though this is Henry’s own regiment, to which he is loyal, he can’t deny the sinister nature of the army’s movements. This language continues throughout the novel. Crane describes a group of approaching Confederate soldiers as “redoubtable dragons.” During one skirmish, the cannons “belched and howled like brass devils.” At other moments, Crane uses religious terms to draw a more specific link between war and the devil, describing war as “the red animal” and “the blood-swollen god.” When Henry walks a short distance from his regiment’s camp at night, he looks back at his comrades scurrying around the fire and describes them as “weird and satanic.” (The invocation of satanic elements might have been especially potent to Crane, who was the son of a Methodist minister.)
Especially in the face of the beautiful northern Virginia landscape, and the trees that are elsewhere compared to churches and cathedrals, this motif points out that the business of war is inherently unnatural. While Henry initially assumes that he can become a hero through war, he and the other soldiers are forced into monstrous behavior. Importantly, this motif characterizes the soldiers as less than human, reflecting the ways that war dehumanizes them both by exposing them to cruel and pointless deaths and forcing them to kill others. It’s also notable that Crane applies this metaphor to both the Union and Confederate armies, further underscoring his argument that war is meaningless, or at least an inadequate means of addressing the moral questions that divided America during the Civil War: if both armies appear equally monstrous, how can either deserve victory?
When Henry faces battle for the first time, he becomes overwhelmed with fear and flees into the forest. When he stumbles upon a peaceful clearing, Crane uses a metaphor to compare it to a church:
At length he reached a place where the high, arching boughs made a chapel. He softly pushed the green doors aside and entered. Pine needles were a gentle brown carpet. There was a religious half light.
Here, Crane explicitly compares the tree branches to the roof of a “chapel,” and foliage to the “doors” of a church. He cements the motif by pointing out the “religious half light” in the clearing. Later, he describes the sound of branches moving in the wind as a “hymn of twilight” and compares the trees to a “chorus.”
By summoning the positive image of a peaceful church, Crane emphasizes the beauty of the natural landscape and implicitly contrasts that beauty to the man-made horror of war. This comparison is strengthened by the fact that Crane describes both armies as monsters and devils, creatures that within Christian theology are the enemies of the church. Much as the personification of the weather leads the reader to believe that the tranquil landscape can function as a refuge for war-battered soldiers, the metaphor of the church shows Henry’s momentary belief that he’s found a haven from the monstrosity of war. It’s important to note that Crane was the son of a Methodist minister, so the invocation of religious metaphor to describe a hallowed or sacred space would have been powerful to him.
The metaphor is complicated almost immediately when Henry finds a soldier’s corpse in the clearing. Crane describes the grotesquely decaying body in detail, comparing the color of the soldier’s skin to that of a “dead fish” and noting the ants scurrying across his face. This is the first corpse that Henry has seen up close, so he’s terrified. Rather than protecting him from the brutality of war, the forest “chapel” forces him to confront that brutality directly. Moreover, while the metaphor of the church implies that the forest holds a benevolent attitude towards the humans that enter it, the spectacle of the decaying, bug-ridden corpse demonstrates that nature is impersonal and indifferent to human lives. Humans like Henry can draw on nature to make meaning of their experiences, but nature will not protect them.
In The Red Badge of Courage, Crane uses the motif of machinery to explore the increased mechanization of war and the dehumanizing consequences of this shift for soldiers like Henry. During his first battle, Henry explicitly compares the operations of the two armies to a machine, remarking in horrified fascination that:
The battle was like the grinding of an immense and terrible machine to him. Its complexities and powers, its grim processes, fascinated him. He must go close and see it produce corpses.
The motif of machinery extends far beyond this simile. During a chaotic entrance into battle later in the novel, Crane writes that Henry is “unaware of the machinery of orders that started the charge.” Describing Henry’s naive belief, prior to enlisting, that war would be easy, Crane cites his belief that the Union army would “make victories as a contrivance turns out buttons.” Elsewhere, Crane compares Confederate soldiers to “machines of steel” and describes Henry’s fatigued regiment as a “machine run down.”
Much like the motif of the monolithic army, the motif of machinery emphasizes Henry’s insignificance as a soldier. In the regiment, he’s not so much an individual as a cog in a large machine. The motif also emphasizes Henry’s lack of agency: his tendency to view battle as an inscrutable machine shows his inability to parse what is happening around him, much less accomplish anything meaningful as a soldier. All of this is completely contrary to Henry’s idealized visions of noble, heroic warfare; the motif helps to convey the chasm between Henry’s expectations and experience on the battlefield.
There’s also an implicit contrast at play between the machinery of war and other kinds of man-made machines—for example, the button-making “contrivance” to which Henry compares the Union army. Most machines are productive and, at least in theory, contribute to human well-being by producing helpful items such as buttons. But as Henry sees in battle, the war machine can only produce “corpses.” In this sense, the motif conveys not just Henry’s personal experience but the overall pointlessness of war.
The motif of machinery also gestures at historical developments that differentiated the Civil War from previous conflicts, namely the Industrial Revolution, or transition from agrarian to manufacturing economies. Because of the rise of factories and increase in technological development during the Industrial Revolution, war became mechanized as never before. For example, machine guns were used for the first time during the Civil War; the long range from which soldiers could now shoot made battles more deadly and death more impersonal. The result is a kind of fighting vastly different not just from the classical, idealized war Henry imagines but even from previous American wars—the death toll during the Civil War was much higher than any previous American war. The motif of machinery emphasizes this new horror. Just as other Naturalist writers, such as Theodore Dreiser, wrote about how industrialization and factory labor dehumanized workers, Crane uses the motif of machinery to show how the mechanization of war dehumanizes soldiers.