Jethro, the protagonist, comes of age during the Civil War. He is forced to reckon with a national crisis, a tragic death in his family, a sudden assumption of responsibility, and a thorough loss of innocence. Jethro must deal with the effects of the war while trying to shape his vision of America.
Jethro's sister. Jenny and Jethro struggle together, talking about the war. They are the only Creighton children not fighting in the war, and they find solace in each other. They are also linked together by Shadrach, Jenny's romantic interest and Jethro's teacher, and both spend time wishing for his safe return. At the end of the book, Jethro moves in with Jenny and Shadrach.
Shadrach is Jethro's teacher and friend. He helps Jethro learn to read and speak and encourages the furthering of his education. Shadrach goes to fight in the war, leaving both Jethro and Jenny missing him intensely. Shadrach is wounded and nearly dies. Jenny visits him, helps him recover, and the two marry.
Ross Milton befriends Jethro on Jethro's first trip into town. Milton defends Jethro from remarks about Bill's loyalties. Milton also takes an interest in Jethro's education, giving him a textbook to accelerate his knowledge in proper grammar and speech. Milton accompanies Jenny to Washington DC to see Shadrach and is a soothing presence at the Creighton's throughout the war.
Bill is Jethro's favorite brother. Bill toils over his decision of whether to fight and for which side, and ultimately he decides to fight for the South. During the war he and John see each other and speak. Bill tells John to tell the family that he did not fire the bullet that killed Tom.
Mr. Burdow is the father of Travis Burdow, who killed Jethro's sister Mary. Mr. Burdow protects Jethro from the men who are angry about Bill's betrayal and redeems himself by helping Jethro and sending supplies to help the Creightons rebuild the barn.
Ellen, Jethro's mother, is a calming influence around the house, and she does her best to nurture Jethro. She knows that Jethro is special and is bothered by the fact that Jethro must assume great responsibilities for one so young and is worried that the war takes some of the shine out of Jethro.
Matt, Jethro's father, provides an example of fairness for Jethro. He chooses not to seek revenge on his daughter's killer, and he keeps a level head about his situation during the war. He has a heart attack, which prompts Jethro's assumption of responsibility in the family. Matt finally relents on his prohibition to let Jenny and Shadrach marry, signing his consent when the two are in Washington DC.
Jethro's cousin. Eb is one of the deserters in the war. He leaves the war because it is awful, and there is no hope of winning. He returns to the farm, and Jethro keeps his presence a secret, sneaking him food and blankets. Eventually he rejoins the war effort because President Lincoln declares amnesty for all deserters who return to their posts.