The Red Badge of Courage HTML version

Chapter 20
When the two youths turned with the flag they saw that much of the regiment had
crumbled away, and the dejected remnant was coming slowly back. The men, having
hurled themselves in projectile fashion, had presently expended their forces. They slowly
retreated, with their faces still toward the spluttering woods, and their hot rifles still
replying to the din. Several officers were giving orders, their voices keyed to screams.
"Where in hell yeh goin'?" the lieutenant was asking in a sarcastic howl. And a red-
bearded officer, whose voice of triple brass could plainly be heard, was commanding:
"Shoot into 'em! Shoot into 'em, Gawd damn their souls!" There was a melee of
screeches, in which the men were ordered to do conflicting and impossible things.
The youth and his friend had a small scuffle over the flag. "Give it t' me!" "No, let me
keep it!" Each felt satisfied with the other's possession of it, but each felt bound to
declare, by an offer to carry the emblem, his willingness to further risk himself. The
youth roughly pushed his friend away.
The regiment fell back to the stolid trees. There it halted for a moment to blaze at some
dark forms that had begun to steal upon its track. Presently it resumed its march again,
curving among the tree trunks. By the time the depleted regiment had again reached the
first open space they were receiving a fast and merciless fire. There seemed to be mobs
all about them.
The greater part of the men, discouraged, their spirits worn by the turmoil, acted as if
stunned. They accepted the pelting of the bullets with bowed and weary heads. It was of
no purpose to strive against walls. It was of no use to batter themselves against granite.
And from this consciousness that they had attempted to conquer an unconquerable thing
there seemed to arise a feeling that they had been betrayed. They glowered with bent
brows, but dangerously, upon some of the officers, more particularly upon the red-
bearded one with the voice of triple brass.
However, the rear of the regiment was fringed with men, who continued to shoot irritably
at the advancing foes. They seemed resolved to make every trouble. The youthful
lieutenant was perhaps the last man in the disordered mass. His forgotten back was
toward the enemy. He had been shot in the arm. It hung straight and rigid. Occasionally
he would cease to remember it, and be about to emphasize an oath with a sweeping
gesture. The multiplied pain caused him to swear with incredible power.
The youth went along with slipping uncertain feet. He kept watchful eyes rearward. A
scowl of mortification and rage was upon his face. He had thought of a fine revenge upon
the officer who had referred to him and his fellows as mule drivers. But he saw that it
could not come to pass. His dreams had collapsed when the mule drivers, dwindling
rapidly, had wavered and hesitated on the little clearing, and then had recoiled. And now
the retreat of the mule drivers was a march of shame to him.