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The narrator introduces Peyton Farquhar (what a name), a wealthy planter and slave owner from an old, prestigious Alabama family.
Farquhar, like many other slave owners, supports secession and is devoted to the Confederacy. (Interested in learning more about the Civil War? Take a look at Shmoop's information on the struggle.)
Even though he's a big fan of southern independence, Farquhar isn't a soldier. The narrator doesn't explicitly tell us why. You'll have to read the first paragraph of Part 2 and decide for yourself.
The narrator informs us that the Confederate army has suffered recent setbacks. The town of Corinth (near where our story takes place) has been taken over by Federal troops after an unsuccessful military campaign.
Here's a little AP US History action for you: Corinth, Mississippi, was strategically important in the Civil War because many major railroads in the Mississippi Valley passed through it. One pretty big-deal battle went down in the area. Union commander Henry Halleck had planned to attack Corinth, but Confederates under Albert Sidney Johnston and P.T. Beauregard managed to attack first at what is now known as the Battle of Shiloh. The Confederates ended up having to retreat after suffering more casualties than the Union. Score one for the Union. Now that we've dropped some Civil War trivia on you, we can move on.
Farquhar feels that an opportunity will come for him to serve the South. In fact he feels like he has already served the cause in some small ways.
The narrator then describes Farquhar and his wife sitting together outside one evening.
A soldier in a gray uniform (translation: a Confederate soldier) approaches them and asks for some water. Rather than summoning a slave, Mrs. Farquhar decides to serve the soldier herself.
While his wife fetches a glass of water, Farquhar asks the soldier if there is any war news. Since there wasn't an Us Weekly of the Civil War, they had to get their information through word-of-mouth.
The soldier tells Farquhar that Union troops are repairing railroads and preparing to advance. (A common tactic on both sides of the war was destroying railroads to cut off armies from their supplies and home bases. Pretty tricky.) According to the soldier, the Yankees (a common term for Union troops) have recently repaired the bridge over Owl Creek and built a stockade (an enclosure made of wooden posts). The soldier also tells Farquhar that the guy in charge has ordered that any civilian found tampering with the railroad will be hanged (yep, it's hanged, not hung. Isn't grammar fun?) without a trial.
Perhaps a bit more than idly curious, Farquhar asks how far away the bridge is. Who needs Google when you have a real, live soldier? The bridge is 30 miles away and is guarded by a picket a half a mile away from the bridge. In case you aren't versed in military terminology, a picket is basically a human watchdog. A sentinel (another word for a guard) is on the side of the bridge closer to Farquhar's home.
Farquhar, with all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop, asks what a "civilian and student of hanging" (2.8) could do if he got past the sentinel and the picket.
The soldier (apparently not at all concerned for Farquhar's safety) tells him that a pile of driftwood has accumulated against the pier. According to him, the driftwood is dry and ideal for starting a fire. This is what we call aiding and abetting.
Mrs. Farquhar returns with the water. The soldier drinks and then leaves.
But wait! An hour later, the soldier in gray rides by the plantation again on his way north. Turns out that he is actually a Federal (Union) scout. Now that's a twist and a half.