Many years after Africans are brought in chains to America, the nineteenth century abolitionists demand that the Africans' descendants be freed. Phil and Tod Stoneman, sons of abolitionist leader and congressman Austin Stoneman, visit Phil's school friend, Ben Cameron, and his family in Piedmont, South Carolina. Phil courts Ben's sister Margaret, while Tod and Ben's young brother Duke become friends. When President Abraham Lincoln calls for volunteers, Phil and Tod return, but first, Ben playfully steals Phil's locket which contains a portrait of Phil's sister Elsie. During the war, Duke and Tod die in each others' arms. Northern guerrillas raid Piedmont and devastate the Cameron home. After Atlanta is burned and General Sherman marches to the sea, Ben, leading an heroic, but unsuccessful counterattack against General Grant's campaign on Petersburg, is wounded and rescued by Phil. At a Washington hospital, Ben meets Elsie, now a nurse. Ben's mother visits and successfully pleads to Lincoln for Ben's pardon from an unfounded charge. After Lee's surrender and Lincoln's assassination, Stoneman assumes great power in Congress. He sends his protégé, the mulatto Silas Lynch, to Piedmont, where the whites are disenfranchised. Lynch is elected lieutenant governor, and illiterate blacks gain control of the legislature and courts. To oversee Lynch's progress, Stoneman travels to Piedmont with Phil and Elsie. Ben and Elsie become engaged, but Margaret, prideful over the South's loss, is cold to Phil. To respond to the injustice which he feels, Ben forms the Ku Klux Klan. When Elsie learns that Ben is a clansman, she breaks their engagement. After Gus, a black soldier who becomes one of Lynch's followers, finds Flora, Ben's youngest sister, alone in the woods, he asks her to marry him. She runs in fright, and jumps off a cliff because she thinks that Gus will rape her. After she dies in Ben's arms, Gus is captured and hanged by the Klan. Dr. Cameron is arrested for having Klan costumes in his house, and although Phil and the Cameron's black servants rescue him, they become entrapped, with Margaret and Mrs. Cameron, in a country cabin. As black militia troops invade the streets of Piedmont, Lynch asks Elsie to be the queen of his black empire. Repelled, Elsie barely fends off Lynch. Her father arrives and is also horrified by Lynch's proposal, but he is powerless to prevent a forced marriage. After Ben leads the Klan's ride to rescue Elsie and Stoneman--and afterward, the Camerons--the blacks are disenfranchised. Margaret and Phil honeymoon with Ben and Elsie. In an allegorical epilogue the millenium is depicted wherein Christ's resurrection binds nations with brotherhood and love.