Inman lies in a Confederate hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, recovering from a combat wound. He spends much time peering out a window. When well enough, he begins to explore the surroundings of the hospital, meeting a blind man he had seen through the window. The blind man observes that it is better to have been born blind than to lose sight after seeing the world. Inman decides to desert from the army and return to Cold Mountain and his beloved Ada.
Ada, the sole inhabitant of the Black Cove farm, struggles to feed herself. After her father died, Ada allowed Black Cove to fall into a general state of disrepair. She flirts with the idea of returning to Charleston but reasons that there is little point in doing so. Though educated, she was never taught farming, hunting, or any other survival skill. Through her neighbors, Ada meets a young drifter named Ruby, who agrees to help in the upkeep of Black Cove in exchange for a place to live.
Inman’s journey progresses slowly because of his injury. During a stop at a general store, he is accosted by robbers, leading him to remember a Cherokee incantation called “To Destroy Life.” Inman realizes that the journey home will be violent. After recalling his first introduction to Ada, Inman enlists the aid of a ferry girl to cross a river. While crossing, the robbers catch up and force Inman and the ferry girl into the water. Thanks to the girl’s knowledge of the river, Inman makes it across and continues his journey west.
Back at Black Cove, Ada’s indoctrination to manual labor commences under Ruby. Ruby surveys work that needs to be done and prioritizes tasks at hand. The two decide to trade some of Ada’s possessions for food and supplies. After bartering Ada’s piano, Ruby reveals to Ada that she had been abandoned as a child. She does not know her mother and had been left to fend for herself by her father, Stobrod.
Inman encounters a preacher named Veasey who is attempting to kill a woman he had made pregnant. Inman interferes and marches Veasey and the woman back to her home. He ties Veasey to a tree and leaves a note explaining why Veasey is tied up. Fearful of the Confederate Home Guard, Inman leaves the scene and makes camp with gypsies. Haunted by another memory of Ada, Inman dreams of her and makes a promise in his dream that he will never let her go.
Inman is reunited with Veasey, who has been exiled from his congregation. Veasey reveals himself to be little more than a man taken up with womanizing and thievery, and he gets into trouble with a prostitute. Inman and Veasey spend the night at the home of a lonely old man named Odell. Meanwhile, Ada and Ruby enter town and are told of how the Home Guard would rather kill outliers, or deserters, than return them to the army. On her return trip to the farm, Ada tells Ruby how her father had courted her mother for almost twenty years.
Inman and Veasey assist a man named Junior in removing a dead bull from a river. Afterward, Junior invites Inman and Veasey to his home. There, Junior’s three daughters subdue and seduce Inman in an elaborate trap and hand Inman and Veasey over to the Home Guard. Later, the Home Guard decides to shoot them. Veasey is killed, but Inman survives. Inman feigns death and escapes, running into a slave who draws him a map to get home. Before Inman sets off, he...
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stops by Junior’s home and kills him.
Ada and Ruby, noting that their crops keep disappearing, set a trap to catch the culprit. Concerned that the thief might be human, Ada convinces Ruby to pad the trap. Ruby leaves to attend to matters in town, and Ada makes a scarecrow for the field. Afterward, Ada reminisces about the time she bade Inman farewell as he left for the war. Meanwhile, Inman follows the map and encounters an old goat-woman who feeds him and tends his wounds. At Black Cove farm, the trap Ruby set catches the culprit: her father, Stobrod, who has deserted the Confederate army and taken up the fiddle as his calling.
Inman next encounters a war widow named Sara. In exchange for food and shelter, Inman offers to help Sara butcher a hog for the winter. That night, Sara requests that Inman sleep next to her. The next morning, three federal soldiers arrive and pillage Sara’s property. Inman hides as the soldiers leave with the hog. He follows and then kills them. Upon his return, he and Sara butcher the hog.
Stobrod returns to Black Cove with a companion, Pangle. Ruby, wary of assisting outliers, forces Stobrod to leave but agrees to leave food for him hidden at a predetermined spot. Later, as Inman continues through the mountains, Stobrod and Pangle are captured by the Home Guard and shot. A third outlier runs to Black Cove for help. Ada and Ruby set off into the mountains and find Pangle dead and Stobrod barely alive. The two women bury Pangle and move Stobrod to an abandoned American Indian village nearby.
While Ruby tends to her father, Ada hunts wild turkey and fires a shot. Inman, nearby, hears the shot and reunites with Ada. As Stobrod recovers, Inman and Ada decide that Inman will surrender to federal troops. That night, Ada and Inman make love.
On the way back to Black Cove, Inman insists that Ruby and Ada travel alone in case they are intercepted by the Home Guard; they are soon intercepted. Inman engages in a firefight as Stobrod escapes. Inman is mortally wounded. Ada arrives and holds Inman until he dies in her arms. Years later, Ada lives with Ruby, Stobrod, and her and Inman’s daughter in Black Cove.
Ashdown, Paul. “’Savage Satori’: Fact and Fiction in Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain.” In Memory and Myth: The Civil War in Fiction and Film from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to “Cold Mountain,” edited by David B. Sachsman, S. Kittrell Rushing, and Roy Morris. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2007. This chapter on Cold Mountain is part of a collection exploring “creative responses to the Civil War” and the formation of “historical memories of the war into durable, ever-changing myths.”
Garren, Terrell T. The Secret of War: A Dramatic History of Civil War Crime in Western North Carolina. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 2004. A historical novel similar to Cold Mountain that offers more historical detail. The protagonist had been assigned to the same army unit (Inman’s) fictionalized by Frazier. An excellent historical and narrative companion to Cold Mountain.
Inscoe, John C., and Gordon B. McKinney. The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. A scholarly look at western North Carolina’s disposition at various stages of the Civil War. Explains the confusing political landscape of the region in detail, affording a greater understanding of the seemingly sophisticated motivations of the characters found in Frazier’s novel.
Peuser, Richard W., and Trevor K. Plante. “Cold Mountain’s Inman: Fact Versus Fiction.” Prologue Magazine 36, no. 2 (Summer, 2004): 6-9. Military historians trace the journey of the historical William P. Inman during the Civil War. Offers clues about how Frazier distilled his research into a workable plot for Cold Mountain.
Trotter, William R. Bushwackers! The Mountains. Winston-Salem, N.C.: J. F. Blair, 1991. A factual account of the many skirmishes and incidents in the mountains of North Carolina during the American Civil War. Much of the background and setting that Frazier mentions in passing in Cold Mountain is greatly expanded upon in this book.
Yearns, Wilfred B., and John G. Barrett, eds. North Carolina Civil War Documentary. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. A collection of primary sources pertaining to North Carolina’s involvement in the Civil War. Like Cold Mountain, this work is concerned less with the military aspect of the war and more with its effects on the home front.