Philip Nolan, a brash young American army officer who becomes involved in Aaron Burr’s conspiracy against the United States. At his court-martial, in a show of bravado, the young man curses his country. As a result, he is sentenced to serve out his life aboard naval vessels, never seeing the United States or hearing it mentioned. Even his books and periodicals are excised of all allusions to his country. Through the years, Nolan is transferred from one navy vessel to another, always wearing an army uniform with plain buttons, thus acquiring the nickname of “Plain Buttons.” As time passes, authorities in the Navy and in Washington forget Nolan, but he is still passed from one ship to another, never allowed within a hundred miles of the American coast. As the years pass his unconcern, worn bravely at first, fades away, as he wanders the seas an official expatriate—countryless, friendless, even nameless. As he finally lies dying, an old man, the captain of his current prison ship tells Nolan what has happened in the fifty-six years since Nolan left the country—omitting, for the dying man’s sake, only the Civil War.
Colonel Morgan, the army officer conducting the court-martial that sends Philip Nolan to his years of wandering over the sea.