The Red Badge of Courage takes place during the American Civil War, the deadliest conflict in American history, which spanned the years 1861-1865. The Civil War broke out when a coalition of southern states attempted to secede from the United States due to, among other issues, intense debates about whether to abolish the institution of slavery. Henry is fighting with the Union Army, representing the northern states and the federal government, against the Confederate Army, representing the seceding southern states. Interestingly, slavery is never mentioned in the novel, which shows how little the moral or political causes behind the war have to do with an ordinary soldier’s experience of battle.
Crane never says exactly where or when during the Civil War the book takes place. However, historians believe he was inspired by the Battle of Chancellorsville, which took place in northern Virginia in May 1863. This battle was one of the last Confederate victories before the tide of the war turned towards the Union army at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. Stonewall Jackson, arguably the Confederacy's greatest strategist, was wounded at Chancellorsville and died of pneumonia several days later.
The northern Virginia environment in which the novel takes place is beautiful and rural. The occasional fence or abandoned house provide the only evidence that people lived there prior to the armies’ arrival. The landscape’s pristine beauty contrasts starkly with the “monstrous” machinery of war created by the two armies and the spectacle of mass death that ensues as they face off. At first, the natural world seems to provide a reprieve for Henry, distracting him from the bloody business of war. But he soon comes to see this beauty as evidence of nature’s indifference to humanity.