In 1862 Water's Ford, Pennsylvania, abolitionism is prevalent, even passionate, so the local men rally to answer Mr. Lincoln's call to arms. Thus the women of Elm Creek Valley's quilting bee are propelled into the unknown. Constance Wright, married to Abel, a skilled sharpshooter courageous enough to have ventured south to buy his wife's freedom from a Virginia plantation, knows well her husband's certainty that all people, enslaved and free, North and South, need colored men like him to fight for a greater purpose. Sisters-in-law Dorothea Nelson and Charlotte Granger wish safe passage for their learned husbands. Alongside the devotion of his wife, pregnant with their second child, Jonathan brings the promise he made to his unrequited love, Gerda Bergstrom: "My first letter will be to you." Together with the other members of the circle, the women support one another through loneliness and fear, and devise an ingenious business plan to keep Water's Ford functioning. That plan may forever alter the patchwork of town life in ways that transcend even the ultimate sacrifices of war.