Carter Barnwell, the protagonist in The Home Guard, is twelve years old when his world is turned on its head on November 7, 1861. As the Prologue states, “he knew best the streams and marshes of the Lowcountry. Winds and tides were as much a part of him as his fingerprints.” As with children in all wars, he is a victim of the inability of adults, those he loves and looks up to, to settle their differences peacefully.
On the morning of November 7, 1861, he awakes in his bedroom in the home his family has occupied for generations. By that night, he finds himself living on an island in a hunting lodge, the sole source of food and warmth for his eighty-year-old grandmother, Missma. His older brother, Preston, enlisted immediately after Fort Sumter and is up in Virginia, fighting with a South Carolina infantry unit. As Carter has never been out of Beaufort, and never known anyone who wasn’t Southern, he wants to do his part to help his people, the Confederacy. Taking care of his grandmother won’t earn him any medals, but it is what is most needed at the moment, so he resolves to do his best despite his confusion as to where this will all end.
His cousin, Gabriel Heyward, believes Carter can do more than hunt, fish, and cut firewood for his grandmother. He suggests that Carter become the eyes and ears of the Confederacy in Beaufort. When Missma describes the risks he will run in spying on an enemy force occupying Beaufort, Carter must make his first major decision of the war. It won’t be his last.
Nothing matures a child faster than having adult situations thrust upon them and finding a way to survive, whether those situations are the death of a parent, divorce, or in Carter’s case, a war. After making it through that first winter with Missma, he is due for some good news, and it comes in the form of new neighbors on Three Pines, the plantation that adjoins the hunting lodge.