Pressured by his publisher, McClure, to write more Civil War works after the success of his novel The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane crafted with some difficulty “The Little Regiment.” The story, which Crane identified as a novelette divided in eight parts, became the title piece in a small collection of war stories titled “The Little Regiment” and Other Episodes of the American Civil War. The story signifies “Crane’s foray into naturalism: the protagonists are not individualized human beings but representatives of ‘humanity’ ” (Wolford 63). The characters inhabit an indifferent world of war, chaos, and death.
“The Little Regiment” begins with vivid descriptions of fog blanketing a regiment of Union soldiers who lie in wait in the mud, joking and bragging while gun and artillery fire rumble in the distance. As Austin McC. Fox suggests, “Often it is the opening description in Crane’s stories that strikes the note of the indifference of the universe,” and the fog that pervades the story “becomes a symbol of this indifference” (60). Two brothers, Billie and Dan Dempster, trade barbs and openly express derision to each other, which began when they enlisted on the same day and continues under the eyes of their fellow soldiers, who expect the brothers to come to blows. Billie’s promotion to corporal prompts his brother’s open defiance of Billie’s higher rank. It is not until Dan calls Billie a fool in a “decisive” and “brightly assured” voice that Billie considers severing all ties to his brother (229). In battle, surrounded by gunfire and bloodshed, Billie gains an awareness of his own insignificance: “The terrible voices from the hills told him that in this wide conflict his life was an insignificant fact, and that his death was an insignificant fact. They portended the whirlwind to which he would be as necessary as a butterfly’s waved wing” (230). Such knowledge fails to mend the rift between him and Dan and further isolates them. Billie decides to ignore Dan as if his brother no longer exists.
Billie’s silent treatment initially dismays and quickly angers Dan, yet it does not damper his spirits as he eagerly awaits the regiment’s next engagement of the enemy, certain of victory. Billie is awakened in the middle of the night by a sergeant gathering men for special duty, and Dan is among them. Despite the rancor between them, Billie worries about Dan’s safety and is visibly agitated; however, when Dan safely returns, Billie hides his concern and feigns sleep.
The brothers are quickly thrust back into danger. In another skirmish, the regiment blindly fights the enemy in the dense fog. As the fog clears, Dan comes face to face with the enemy, registers the details of the man’s appearance, and by chance kills his enemy before his enemy kills him. The next morning, again marked by fog, the regiment marches toward a greater battle in which the soldiers struggle to overcome an enemy that stands its ground and breaks their lines. After the failed onslaught, the Union soldiers rename themselves the Little Regiment.
Back at camp, Dan isolates himself from his fellow soldiers, who ask him whether he has received any news of Billie, who has not returned after battle. He finds little comfort from the soldiers, who try to reassure him that Billie may lie among the wounded. Dan struggles to maintain his stony countenance to mask his worry. Billie awakes on the battlefield, surrounded by the dead barely distinguishable through the fog, and discovers he was wounded in the head. The regiment cheers as Billie appears in camp, and Dan struggles to conceal his emotions. The brothers reunite, physically and emotionally: “After a series of shiftings, it occurred naturally that the man with the bandage was very near to the man who saw the flames. He paused, and there was a little silence. Finally he said: ‘Hello, Dan.’ [and Dan replies], ‘Hello, Billie’ ” (243). Chester L. Wolford notes, “At that point, they realize what they had always known instinctively: that the other’s existence increases their own importance, just as the existence of the regiment surpasses in importance the lives of its members” (63). Their simple greeting reveals the affection concealed by their public displays of derision toward one another.
Michael Schaeffer acknowledges that current critical appraisals of the story remain mixed. Critics such as James Colvert view the work as a failure, and others, following suit, point to “Crane’s overwriting, editorializing, lack of movement in describing the action of the story, failure to develop the brothers’ relationship fully enough,” among other problems (Schaeffer 200). On the other side of the spectrum, more favorable critics applaud Crane’s use of symbolism and his growing maturity. Regardless of any negative criticism, no critic or reader can deny the poignancy of the story’s final scene, where the brothers once again stand side by side.
Crane, Stephen. “The Little Regiment.” In The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Fox, Austin McC. “Crane Is Preoccupied with the Theme of Isolation.” In Readings on Stephen Crane, edited by Bonnie Szumski, 56–62.
The Greenhaven Press Literary Companion to American Authors. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1998.
Ives, C. B. “ ‘The Little Regiment’ of Stephen Crane at the Battle of Fredericksburg.” Midwest Quarterly 9 (1967): 247–260.
Schaefer, Michael W. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Stephen Crane. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996.
Wolford, Chester L. Stephen Crane: A Study of the Short Fiction. Twayne Studies in Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.