Sam, Tim Meeker's admired older brother, arrives in uniform at the Meeker tavern one rainy April evening in 1775. "We've beaten the British in Massachusetts," Sam exclaims, beginning a fight with Father, who is staunchly loyal to the English government and king. Sam explains to the people around the table how the Minutemen lay a surprise attack on the British "Lobsterbacks" (named for their red uniform coats) in Lexington. Sam basks comfortably in all the attention. Father asks him a series of skeptical questions, including who fired the first shot. Sam does not know who fired first.
The dinner guests, the minister Mr. Beach and several farmers, all support England, and they take Father's side, arguing with Sam about the cause, questioning whether the loss of thousands of lives is worth saving a few pennies in taxes. Sam insists that America should fight on principle, and soon Father loses his temper and bangs the table. Tim keeps quiet, but thinks of the frequency of these fights between Sam and Father. Sam has been educated at Yale and is always triumphant, full of facts and fervor, but Father still always seems to know best.
After dinner, Tim goes to milk the family cow, Old Pru. Sam refuses to help, worried about soiling his uniform. Sam eventually joins Tim, saying Mother had reprimanded him with her usual sort of godly advice, saying "idle hands make the Devil's work." Tim asks questions about Sam's wild times at Yale, his experiences with alcohol and girls. Through a practiced guise of feigned uninterest, Tim prods his older brother to confide in him about the war. Sam admits that he has joined the Rebel side under the leadership of Captain Benedict Arnold and that he has returned home to take Brown Bess, a bayonet gun that belongs to Father. The news about the gun horrifies Tim, who doesn't want any more conflict between his brother and his father. But as Sam has sworn him to secrecy and Tim takes swearing and religion seriously, he cannot reveal Sam's secret.
Feeling torn and impotent, Tim goes up to bed and waits for Sam to join him. He wakes in the night to hear Father and Sam arguing. Sam demands the Brown Bess and Father refuses, speaking of his own war experience in a sad, wise speech. He tells of carrying his best friend's body back to his parents in a sack, and says quietly and ominously that he doesn't want to receive Sam's body in a similar fashion. He asks Sam to lose his cause or leave the house. Sam leaves, and Tim hears the sound of Father crying. Tim knows that the coming times will be hard ones.
The focus is on Sam in the first chapter. His arrival on the scene opens the narrative and the personalities of the family come clear through their reaction to Sam's tale. Father displays blunt practicality, telling Sam to shut the door to prevent rain from coming in the house before he properly greets his son. Mother says little, but welcomes him in, relieved to have him home from college. Tim, the youngest Meeker son and the first person narrator of the story, notes with admiration and some envy how proud Sam looks in his uniform. Sam, showing his own love of glory, ignores his family's reactions and bursts forth with his own glorious news about Lexington.
When Father asks about the order of shots, we see an early glimpse of his ability to understand the actual principles and futility of war. This contrasts with Sam's less informed involvement, which is based more on a zealot's ideal of causes and glory than it is on experience. Later, when Father and Sam argue about the Brown Bess, Father speaks confidentially to Sam about the awfulness of war as he saw it. During all of this, Tim simply listens, setting his own role in the story as one caught between loyalty to his father's desire to avoid the war, and Sam's desire to live gloriously and dangerously.