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In the spring of 1862, volunteer soldiers in the Union army's 304th Regiment have become restless and bored with training and are anxious to see their first battle. As his comrades boast, The Youth, Henry Fleming, is troubled and unsure of his courage. He discusses courage with his tentmates, The Tall Soldier, Jim Conklin, and The Loud Soldier, Tom Wilson, but finds no solace. On guard duty that night, Henry hears the voice of a Confederate soldier from across the river. The friendly voice warns him to stay out of the moonlight and take care not to get a "little red badge" pinned on him. The next day, Tom goes through camp spreading a rumor he has heard that the regiment will be moving up river for a battle. Henry feels isolated from the other soldiers as they march toward the battlefield. When the men take positions in a trench at the edge of an open field, Tom rushes to Henry and asks him to give some letters to his parents if this is his first and last battle. In the first wave of the attack, few of the Union soldiers are wounded or killed before the Confederates retreat. During a brief ceasefire, the soldiers discuss their fears and the experience of seeing a man killed. Henry now feels that he has passed the test of courage and is a fine fellow of high ideals. When the Confederate soldiers begin a new charge, the fighting is more fierce, causing many Union soldiers to run away, including Henry. A few minutes later, in the woods, Henry overhears Union Cavalry officers proclaim victory. Now feeling that he has betrayed his comrades, Henry looks upon the wounded and wishes that he, too, had a red badge of courage. Henry is able to slip into the ranks without notice and shamefully says nothing when The Tattered Man asks him where he was shot. Among the marching soldiers is Jim, who is badly wounded and dazed. Jim begs Henry to move him out of the road if he falls, and as he stumbles, Henry and The Tattered Man grab his arm. Jim breaks free and runs up a hill, then falls dead as Henry and The Tattered Man catch up to him. A short time later, Henry is caught in the middle of some running soldiers and is knocked on the head by the butt of a rifle. The Cheerful Soldier finds Henry on the ground that night, helps him up and returns him to his regiment. At camp, Tom, who is happy to see Henry, thinks that he has been wounded. Henry says that his head wound was from a bullet, then asks if the Lieutenant has said anything about him being gone. Tom tells Henry that many of the soldiers were separated from their units during the battle and have been wandering into camp all night. The next morning the men walk toward the battlefield and Henry brags of his courage the previous day. When the battle starts, Henry suddenly jumps from his trench and advances against the enemy. The Lieutenant calls him back, then compliments Henry as the bravest of all. During a respite, Tom and Henry go for water for the men and overhear the officers say that the 304th will be sent to charge the enemy. When Henry and Tom report the news, the soldiers are elated at their importance. The men procede slowly at first, but as the pace quickens, Henry yells to his comrades to come along and leads the charge. When the standard bearer is killed, Henry grabs the flag and continues to lead the charge toward the Confederates. Upon seeing the Confederate flag, Henry chases after the standard bearer and when he falls, Henry grabs the Confederate flag as well. After the successful charge, the Union soldiers talk with their defeated counterparts, many of whom wish that they had died in the battle. Later, Thompson, one of the soldiers in Henry's unit, relates that the colonel was greatly impressed by the bravery of the man carrying the flag. As his comrades praise him, Henry, still ashamed of his earlier cowardice, quietly goes off from the group. When Tom joins him, Henry confesses having run from battle the previous day, and Tom reveals that he, too, had "skeedaddled," but the Lieutenant had caught him and made him stay. Now relieved, Henry and Tom join ranks with the others. Although they hear that the victory will be credited to a general other than their own, the men shrug off the news and talk about being home in time for spring planting.