Set against the backdrop of three major American Civil War battles at Antietam, Vicksburg, and Gettysburg, the same five narrators return to tell the stories of what happened in their communities of conscience. Members of Mennonite, Amish, and German Baptist churches choose their loyalties, when their traditional belief of not participating in warfare collides with the demands of Union and Confederate forces. As state and national military drafts and exemptions sweep through the North and South, women and children find themselves raising crops in the Shenandoah Valley, while the "menfolk" join up or flee.
Fretz Funk, a young man in Chicago, lives with uncertainty also, immersed in his new lumber business, disenchanted with the glorification of war on both sides, and disappointed by President Lincoln's slowness in establishing equality for dark-skinned people. A bishop in Iowa fears the growing fissures in the Amish church and sorts through his own failures. A family in western Virginia faces the repeated absence of Poppa, when he is forced to work as a teamster.
The war pushes relentlessly from the summer of 1862 through January of 1864, creating a cumulative pressure of upheaval, dissension, resistance, and teetering faith among civilians.