Dave Burdow is the father of Travis Burdow, who killed Mary Creighton when she was on her way back from a dance. He is hated by the local people for being the father of Travis, as well as for being the son of a reputed horse-thief. The Burdows are generally despised as a feckless and trouble-making family. After Bill Creighton goes to fight for the South, angering some local people, Dave Burdow redeems himself by protecting Jethro from an angry mob. He jumps into Jethro’s wagon and drives him part of the way home, fending off Jethro’s attacker. After the mob burn down the Creightons’ barn, Dave Burdow again comes to the rescue, sending supplies of wood to rebuild the barn.
Ebenezer Carron (Eb)
Eb is Jethro’s cousin. He lives with the Creighton household. He leaves to fight in the war but deserts when the hardship and suffering of the battlefield become too much for him to bear. He returns to the fighting after Jethro writes to the President, Abraham Lincoln, who issues an amnesty allowing deserters to return to their units.
Bill is a son of Matt and Ellen Creighton and an older brother to Jethro. Jethro loves Bill most of all his brothers, and the two share a love of books and learning. Bill attracts controversy and hatred from local people when he goes to fight for the Confederacy (the South) in the war.
Ellen Creighton is the matriarch of the Creighton family, the mother of Jethro, and the wife of Matt Creighton. A pretty girl when she married Matt, Ellen has lost her beauty to the hardships of life on the Illinois farm where she lives and works. Family is everything to her. Because she lost three children to child’s paralysis in the year Jethro was born, he becomes special to her. She feels that “Destiny had marked him” (Chapter 1, p. 9).
Jenny Creighton is the teenage daughter of Matt and Ellen Creighton. At the novel’s opening, she is in love with Shadrach Yale, but Matt will not allow her to marry him because he believes she is too young. She and Jethro are especially close, and he looks forward to working in the fields with her as she makes him laugh. After Shadrach is injured in the war and nearly dies, Jenny helps to nurse him back to health and the couple marry.
Jethro is the youngest son of Matt and Ellen Creighton. At the novel’s opening, he is nine years old. He is forced to grow up prematurely by the outbreak of the civil war. When his older brothers go off to fight in the war and his father falls ill, Jethro by default becomes head of the family, taking on tasks and responsibilities that would normally be thought beyond someone of his tender years. The novel traces his coming-of-age, or maturation, through extraordinary and harsh circumstances. Jethro is the novel’s protagonist and the reader sees the events of the novel largely though his eyes.
John is a son of Matt and Ellen Creighton and an older brother to Jethro. He is married to Nancy and they have two sons.
Matt is the patriarch of the Creighton family, the husband of Ellen, and the father of Jethro and his siblings. He is also a director of the school that Jethro attends and where Shadrach is the teacher.
Matt attracted controversy some time before the novel’s opening over an episode in which his daughter, Mary, and her admirer were killed by a local thug, Travis Burdow, on their way home from a dance. Matt had forbidden his outraged neighbors to take revenge on the Burdow family, showing himself to be a reflective and compassionate man in spite of the injustice done to him and his family. Later, when war is brewing, Jethro comes to reflect on his father’s reluctance to take summary and vengeful action against those who have hurt him, and likens him in this respect to the President, Abraham Lincoln, whom many blame for his slowness in declaring war on the South.
Matt shows some inflexibility in refusing to allow Jenny to marry Shadrach because he believes her to be too young. But after Shadrach is seriously injured in the war, he wonders if he made the right decision. He relents and allows Jenny to join Shadrach, and subsequently to marry him.
Matt is partly forced by circumstances into a position of diminished control over his family when he has a heart attack. He has to take a back seat and allow the only son left at home, Jethro, to run the farm and look after the family.
Nancy is the wife of John Creighton. She is reserved in nature and does not seem to belong entirely within the Creighton family until the war breaks out. The hardships suffered by the family enable her to open up somewhat and she confides in Jethro about her fears.
Tom Creighton is a son of Matt and Ellen Creighton and an older brother of Jethro’s. Tom is excited at the prospect of war and eagerly goes off to fight. He is the only Creighton son to be killed in the war.
Sam Gardiner is the owner of the general store in Newton.
Wilse Graham is Ellen Creighton’s nephew who lives in Kentucky. Graham’s sympathies lie with the South. He defends slavery and feels that the North represents greed.
President Abraham Lincoln
President Lincoln is portrayed as a wise leader who is slow to declare war and quick to show mercy to the defeated South, even when it earns him criticism. He becomes a role model for Jethro, who comes to love him as a friend. Jethro writes to the President about the plight of deserters like Eb, and the President’s reply reveals that he has been thinking about this same question. This cements a link between Jethro and the President, and Jethro is genuinely grief-stricken when the President is killed by an assassin’s bullet at the end of the novel.
Ross is the editor of the county newspaper. An intelligent man, he is crippled with arthritis and in pain. When Jethro goes into Newton, Ross befriends him and tries to protect him from Guy Wortman’s aggression by ensuring that he leaves town early in the day, when Wortman is still at work.
Wortman is an aggressive man who speaks threateningly to Jethro in Newton about Bill’s decision to fight for the South. He warns Dave Burdow that just as Matt Creighton intervened to save Travis Burdow being hanged by a lynch mob after Mary’s death, so Dave may have to intervene to save Bill from a similar angry mob. Wortman pursues Jethro and attacks him on his way home, but Jethro is saved by the intervention of Dave Burdow.
Shadrach, aged twenty at the novel’s opening, is Jethro’s schoolteacher. He was forced by lack of money to interrupt his college studies and work as a teacher in order to get funds to continue his education. Jethro loves Shadrach and is inspired by him to develop his interest in books and learning. Shadrach, in turn, sees great promise in Jethro.
Shadrach is in love with Jenny and the two want to marry, but Matt prevents it on the grounds that Jenny is too young. Shadrach goes off to fight in the war and is so badly injured that he is thought likely to die, but Jenny helps nurse him back to health and two are married at the novel’s end.