PORT JERVIS, New York—Orange Park was alive with history on June 20 to honor the one-time Port Jervis resident who wrote about a common soldier facing the fear of battle during the Civil War. The day also memorialized the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which ended in April, 1865.
Port Jervis went all out in its celebration of Stephen Crane, whose novel “Red Badge of Courage” depicted the inner thoughts of farm boy Henry Fleming when he faces combat. The red badge of the title actually refers to the red badge worn by the 124th Infantry Regiment of New York state volunteers, commonly known as the Orange Blossoms.
Re-enactors in Civil War dress made camp, ladies wearing mourning black for a son killed in battle walked through the park, and famous figures such as Ulysses S. Grant mingled with officials, historians, and descendants of the celebrated author. A Native American re-enactor told how he might have lived among the people of the city.
Crane resided for a time in Port Jervis with his brother Edmund, and there is a story that Crane got the material for his book by listening to Civil War veterans in a Port Jervis park.
According to writer Robert Eurich this story about the park actually began in 1982 and may just be local lore. He says Crane’s neighbor was a veteran, the barber next to his brother’s law office was a veteran, and veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic held meetings nearby. So, according to Eurich, even if Crane did not hear war stories in the park, he certainly heard them in Port Jervis.
True Fear of War
Eurich said Crane wrote about the true fear of war. The account in the novel is considered an accurate description of the Battle of Chancellorsville. Eurich says the Union flank completely collapsed and there was a mad stampede of horses, men, and pack animals.
An officer of the 124th told his men to run for their lives. “When your own officers are telling you to run, you can imagine that Henry Fleming sees these other men running by him, and he thinks it’s the normal thing to do,” Eurich said.
Fleming’s struggle with fear is universal. Confederate re-enactor Richard Sprusansky described how Southern farmers-turned-soldiers experienced true fear. “A lot of them were afraid to die but they all thought that if they would lose their life for such a noble cause, their country, their home, and their family, it was something worth dying for.”
Sprusansky said the Confederate soldiers in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg knew they would die. “They feared artillery because when they got close the grapeshot was devastating. There were reports of people being mutilated so horribly by that they were just unrecognizable.”
The life of a soldier in the 124th was rough. But they had some idea of war from their commanding officer Col. Vanhorn Ellis who was a veteran of past engagements. But for the average recruit, like the Henry Fleming character in the novel, it was a learning experience.
The war was deadly not only in battle. “When the 124th left Goshen, they were 900 men. By the time they fought in their first engagement, they were already down to 560 just from sickness, disease, and a few desertions,” according to a re-enactor. He said at Gettysburg, the 124th suffered 40 percent casualties in 45 minutes, including Col. Vanhorn Ellis, and were down to 200 men at the end of the battle.
Jonathan Crane was on hand to represent the Crane family and receive a key to the city. Mayor Decker presented it with a proclamation honoring the day, but to the laughter of the crowd he said he didn’t think the key opened anything. Crane said he carries the author’s name on both sides of his family and was a descendant of Jonathan Townley Crane—Stephen Crane’s father.
Stephen Crane’s novel brought to life as no one had done before the terror that soldiers must face and overcome. On this celebratory occasion the re-enactors, historians, descendants of the author, and local residents portrayed in grand style the era Crane depicted.
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