During an unnamed battle of the American Civil War, 18-year-old private Henry Fleming deserts his battalion, considering the battle to be a lost cause. Escaping into a nearby forest, he finds a group of injured men. One member of the group, the "Tattered Soldier", asks Henry (who is often referred to as "The Youth") where he is wounded. Henry, embarrassed that he does not have any wounds, leaves the group and wanders through the forest. He ultimately decides that running was the best thing, and that he is a small part of the army that is responsible for saving himself.
Henry later learns that his battalion has won the battle, and feels very guilty. As a result, he returns to his battalion. On the way back to his battalion Henry sees a fleeing regiment and grabs an artilleryman and demands to know what is happening, the man hits Henry in the head when the boy refuses to let go of the gunner's arm. When Henry returns to camp, the other soldiers believe his head injury to be caused by a bullet grazing him in battle.
The next morning Henry goes into battle for the third time. While looking for a stream from which to get water, he discovers from the commanding officer that his regiment has a lackluster reputation. The officer speaks casually about sacrificing Henry's regiment because they are nothing more than "mule drivers" and "mud diggers". With no regiments to spare, the general orders his men forward. In the final battle, Henry becomes one of the best fighters in his battalion as well as the flag bearer, finally proving his courage as a man.
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