The Civil War
By 1860, conflict between the North and the South over states’ rights, slavery (in both newly acquired territories and in existing states), and the economic dominance of the North had led to bitter debate. Emotions ran high and voices of compromise and reason were often ignored. Before Lincoln was even elected, some Southern states had already declared that they would secede if a Republican became president.
Lincoln was not an abolitionist; he had promised the South repeatedly that he would not disturb the institution of slavery in states where it already existed. He did, however, oppose the spread of slavery into newly acquired territories. For Lincoln, as well as for most Northerners, the Civil War was not fought to end slavery but rather to preserve the Union. In fact, though the spread of slavery was opposed by the Union, racism was widespread in both the North and the South. Few Northerners were willing to look upon African Americans as equals. On the other hand, many were outraged that the South would endanger the republic for which those who had fought in the American Revolution had sacrificed so much less than a hundred years earlier.
The South, for its part, feared total economic domination by the North, which was enjoying great economic expansion. From a psychological standpoint, they were tired of the North’s criticism of slavery and the Southern way of life. Despite assurances from Lincoln and others, they feared that the North would soon seek to abolish slavery.
On April 12, 1861, Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, in South Carolina, after learning that Lincoln had sent supply ships to replenish the fort’s food stores. In response to the attack, Lincoln began recruiting troops, which prompted the last four Southern holdouts to secede from the Union, interpreting the recruitment as an act of aggression. Thus began the Civil War, which lasted four years and resulted in the loss of over 600,000 lives. After the Union victory at Antietam (a site near Sharpsburg, Maryland), Lincoln announced his Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which declared all slaves in rebel states ‘‘forever free.’’
Crane modeled much of his novel The Red Badge of Courage after the Battle of Chancellorsville, which was fought in Virginia in 1863. Though the South won this battle, it sustained losses almost as heavy as those of the North, including famed General Stonewall Jackson.
On April 9, 1865, at the courthouse in Appomattox, Virginia, General Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant of the Union. Just five days later, at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., fanatical Southern patriot John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in the back of the head. Lincoln died the next morning.
In 1893, the bankruptcy of the Reading Railroad began a downward spiral in the nation’s economy. In the late nineteenth century, the railroads were one of the America’s largest employers, and the economic influence of the railroad industry was huge. Though there were other weaknesses in the economy—agricultural industries had already been experiencing a downturn—the failure of the Reading Railroad hastened the country’s descent into an economic depression. More and more railroad lines went bankrupt, causing a chain reaction in the steel and banking industries, and a corresponding plunge in the stock market. During this period (1893–1896) unemployment rates were as high as 20 percent.
In 1895, when both ‘‘A Mystery of Heroism’’ and The Red Badge of Courage were released, the country was deep in the throes of this economic crisis. Years of worker exploitation by the ‘‘robber barons’’ of industry had widened the gulf between the country’s wealthy and poor. Crane had observed (and written about) the devastating effects of poverty while living in a New York ghetto after being fired by the Tribune. Though Crane received financial support from his older brothers while living in the ghetto, the great success of The Red Badge of Courage must have been especially welcome to Crane in such difficult financial times. Crane wrote ‘‘A Mystery of Heroism’’ and several other Civil War stories in part to capitalize on the success of his novel.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Stephen Crane – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.