Set during the Civil War, the story begins with a six-year-old Southern boy who wanders away from his house and disappears into the nearby woods, all the while dreaming of military victories and heroic conquests. Feeling emboldened by the spirits of his ancestors, who “had for thousands of years been trained to memorable feats of discovery and conquest”, the child pretends to battle a number of imagined enemy soldiers while wielding a toy sword made of wood. Sometime after “winning” the imagined battle, the child realizes that he is lost in the woods and eventually falls asleep near a stream, letting hours pass by. Unbeknownst to him, his mother has called a search party to find the missing boy and is frantic over the whereabouts of her young son.
When the boy wakes up, he sees unidentifiable figures approaching him and comes to see that they are a multitude of horrifically mutilated soldiers, all of whom are crawling on their knees across the ground. The child is entertained by the sight because it reminds him of the circus, allowing him to interpret the scene as a humorous spectacle of sorts. The boy recalls how his father’s slaves similarly crept upon their hands and knees while pretending to be horses for the child to “ride” on the backs of. Inspired by this memory, the child mounts the back of one of the crawling soldiers, who swiftly flings the boy off of his back. As soon as the child sees a horrific wound upon the man’s face, he becomes terrified by his surroundings and hides near a tree.
The child watches as the soldiers gather around the creek, which turns red from the excessive amounts of blood pouring from the soldiers. The child realizes that the battle took place all around him in the woods while he was sleeping, and the reader learns that the soldiers had nearly trampled the boy as they formed and re-formed their combat lines during the battle.
Finally, the child sees a canopy of smoke arise from the belt of the woods and recognizes that a fire is blazing. Waving his cap towards the mutilated soldiers and believing that they will act as his “forces”, the boy charges into the belt of the woods and is gleeful at the spectacle of a burning house. He even attempts to elevate the spectacle by adding more fuel to the fire but is unable to because the fuel is too heavy for him to carry.
The boy then recognizes some of the outbuildings burning on the property and realizes that it is his own home that is burning down. Shocked by the revelation, he runs towards the conflagration only to see his mother lying dead on the grass with half of her forehead torn away and leaving a hole that exposes her brain, which is now just a “frothy mass of gray”.
Realizing that the soldiers had attacked his plantation, the child attempts to scream but cannot, making only strange and indescribable sounds. The child is revealed to be a deaf mute, and the story ends with him silently observing the destruction.