John F. McCartney—called J.F. -- enters the story when he is nineteen and a student at Kingsville Academy in Northern Ohio. His sister, Grace, is also a student there. In November, 1852, they receive word that their mother has died in an accident, leaving five children still at home. Their father’s plans to bind out the older children to make an easier situation for a new wife leads to family estrangement as their three teen age siblings join John and Grace at Kingsville.
On completion of his program at Kingsville, J.F. travels to Memphis Tennessee after receiving word from a former professor of a teaching job there. The job has been filled by the time he arrives. Lacking money for a return fare to Ohio, he lands in Mound City, Illinois.
In 1857 he is teaching in Grand Chain, Illinois and has fallen in love with Elizabeth when the implications of the Dred Scott decision shake Northern states. J.F. decides that his postponed plans for further education to become a lawyer cannot wait and returns to Ohio. His letters to Elizabeth during this time reveal his hopes and intentions.
On his return to Grand Chain, in 1859 J.F. and Elizabeth marry. He worries as he reads the angry words by delegates from Southern states that split the Democratic party into three factions. Days before the election of Lincoln leads to secession of Southern states, he and Elizabeth have a new daughter. He hopes the trouble will be brief and yields to Elizabeth’s pleas that he remain home.
When, after a year of war, losses create a demand for more men, J.F. enlists and joins the 131st Illinois Infantry at Vicksburg. Elizabeth writes to him almost every day. Although his letters during this time have been lost, her replies reflect their content.
In the last three quarters of the narrative, war and worry dominate the story. With the fall of Vicksburg, J.F. becomes part of Sherman’s army as they advance toward Atlanta. When Elizabeth becomes seriously ill, J.F. applies for leave which is denied. When Atlanta falls, he is part of the Union army marching across Georgia and then north through South Carolina to the end of the war. His almost daily account of events is supplemented by parallel sections on decisions and actions taken at a higher level.