In an instance of situational irony, Henry’s first battle wound comes not from a Confederate soldier but a comrade in his own army. When Henry flees the front lines during his first battle, he eventually finds himself in the midst of a convoy of retreating wounded soldiers. At one point, he sees a column of soldiers, whom he describes as a "procession of chosen beings" heading toward the front lines; the sight makes him feel guilty and ashamed of having fled himself. Not long after, he sees the same column retreating through the woods. Unable to comprehend the possibility of a large-scale defeat for the Union army, Henry seizes a retreating soldier and stammers out his confusion, asking, “Why—why—”
The other soldier, likely terrified and traumatized himself, responds by attacking Henry:
He adroitly and fiercely swung his rifle. It crushed upon the youth’s head. The man ran on.
As a young man with a highly idealized conception of war, Henry expected and even hoped to sustain wounds while demonstrating his bravery on the battlefield. It’s ironic that his first physical injury comes from a chaotic altercation with a fellow Union soldier in the middle of a retreat. This moment is also deeply ironic given Henry’s reverence for wounds: just a few chapters before, he expressed envy for wounded soldiers displaying a “red badge of courage” and worried that because he had no wounds, he would be forever marked by the “sore badge of his dishonor.” Now, Henry has the “red badge” he hoped for, but the wound doesn’t represent any courageous deed; instead, it testifies to the random brutality of war. This is an example of situational irony because the turn of events is unexpected and completely counter to Henry’s naive misconceptions of war.
Henry doesn’t have time to reflect on the irony of this situation in the moment, but this episode eventually helps to complicate his ideas about the meaning of war. By the end of the novel, Henry will no longer associate wounds with manhood and bravery. It’s this realization, rather than any daring deeds on the battlefield, that marks his coming-of-age.