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The story is about wounded Confederate deserter’s return to his home and the city girl who learns to live there on a farm with the help of a perfect mountain girl.
A gravely wounded confederate soldier, a veteran of the savage battle of Fredericksburg, writes from the hospital to the woman he left behind that he is coming home to her. Inman deserts, knowing that Home Guards are on the prowl for deserters, and he begins a long trek westward to Cold Mountain, where he grew up. Inman's youth has filled him with respect for Indian lore, and warfare has filled him with nightmares of shattered bodies and incompetent leadership. Having enlisted to protect his homeland from invaders, Inman is disappointed by humanity's brutality and has no loyalties. Inman worries that 4 years of horror have transformed him into a monster his would be spouse on idyllic Cold Mountain, Ada Monroe, cannot love.
Ada struggles to survive in the shadow of Cold Mountain at Black's Cove after her father, Monroe, a Charleston preacher, moves there for his health but suddenly dies. Ada has enjoyed a protected, comfortable life but been denied training in anything practical. Snobbishly prickly, she is an object of mirth among the locals but is befriended by Ruby, a troubled young woman who has learned survival through trial and error, having been all but abandoned by her worthless father, Stobrod. Stobrod has enlisted and is presumed dead or deserted, so Ruby is available to help and tutor Ada. They become fast friends and Ada gradually becomes a more rounded person, who is able to survive.
As Inman walks home, he encounters a number of colorful characters. A failed preacher, Solomon Veasey, becomes his companion for a way, until they are seized by the Home Guard and dragged back eastward. The guardsmen tire of dealing with their charges and...