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At the end of the Civil War, the citizens of Kennesaw Pass, Georgia, look on in hatred as two Union officers, Maj. Clint Drango and Capt. Marc Banning, approach. When Drango introduces himself as the new military governor to Judge Allen, the town's leading citizen, Allen and his son Clay warn that the town will never accept their authority because the memory of Sherman's troops ravaging their croplands and killing their relatives during a five-day reign of terror is too vivid. After the officers proceed to their hotel room, they are greeted by a terrified Henry Calder, a local man who became a Union loyalist because he disagreed with succession, and is now hounded by ex-Confederate soldiers. Explaining that he killed one of his pursuers, Calder asks Drango to take him to Ft. Dalton for protection. Drango, determined to reinstitute the rule of law, insists that Calder stand trial in town and promises that he will have a fair hearing. When Allen refuses to cooperate, however, Drango tries to empanel a jury of twelve impartial men, but only Dr. Blair comes forward. That night, after several men break into the jail and lynch Calder, his daughter Kate blames Drango for her father's death. The next day, Drango rides to the outlying farms to question the farmers about Calder's killing, but each family has a story about a father, son or brother killed by Sherman's troops and refuses to help. When Drango comes to the Bryant homestead, young Jeb Bryant bristles that both his mother and father were killed by Union soldiers. Next, Drango rides to Shelby Ransom's grand house, hoping that she will be impartial because her father served in the state legislature. Unknown to Drango, Shelby is harboring the fugitives, who are led by Clay, her lover. After Shelby turns away Drango, Clay wonders why the major is unarmed and refrains from using force to establish his authority. Clay plans to spearhead a new kind of war against the North in which local citizens rise up against their conquerors to take back control of the South. Later, Col. Bracken, who believes in the supremacy of force over law, rides into town and chastises Drango for failing to take charge. Before leaving, Bracken warns Drango that he is to be replaced in six weeks by a more conventional commander. To stave off a military takeover, Drango appeals to the town leaders to rebuild the community's social institutions, but only Doc comes forward to support him. The townspeople are suffering from a lack of food, and to punish their defiance, Bracken allocates only six weeks of food to carry them through the harsh winter. When the supply wagons arrive, they are overrun by a hungry mob, and as a result, Drango orders the supplies locked away until they can be distributed. That night, as Doc guards the supplies, Clay and his insurgents surround the warehouse in order to loot it. When Doc tries to stop them, they shoot him, but he fires back, killing one of the rebels, who is then identified as one of his neighbors. After Clay and his gang make off with the supplies, Drango takes Doc back to his office, where, with Kate's help, he removes the bullet. Doc's shooting by one of his own shocks newspaper editor George Randolph into writing an editorial in support of Drango. On Christmas Day, Drango rides out to the Bryant homestead to bring Jeb and his orphaned siblings some food and clothes. At a dance at the Ransom house that night, Shelby follows Clay's instructions to pump Banning for information about new orders issued from Ft. Dalton. As Banning, who is smitten by Shelby, tells her that he loves her, word comes that the newspaper office is on fire. Everyone then rushes to the office, where Drango solemnly carries out the body of Tommy, Randolph's young son, who perished in the flames. Furious, Drango proclaims that no more food will be distributed until Tommy's killers surrender. Later, at a meeting at the courthouse, Clay accuses Drango of tyranny. When Drango responds that town members lynched a man, killed a boy and shot the doctor, Jeb and Rev. Giles Cameron voice their faith in Drango. Clay then surprises the crowd by revealing that Drango commanded the troops that ravaged their valley. Realizing that Clay only could have obtained that information from paid spies, Drango accuses him of leading the insurgency, but the townspeople turn against him, and he walks out of the meeting, alone. Soon after, Banning returns from Ft. Dalton to report that Bracken has decided to send in a squadron of troops to quash the town. Feeling powerless to bring Clay to justice, Drango confides in Kate that he returned to town to rebuild the life he took. After Kate embraces Drango, he rides to Ft. Dalton to try to plead for more time. Meanwhile, Shelby, haunted by Tommy's fate, gets drunk and orders Clay out of her house. Instead, Clay slaps her and forces her to write a note summoning Banning. After Bracken rejects his plea, Drango rides back to town and finds the reverend, Kate and several other townsfolk digging a grave for Banning's body. The reverend tells Drango that Clay shot Banning, then rode to town to incite the townspeople into raiding Ft. Dalton. Drango is about to strap on his gun belt when he changes his mind and places it on Banning's grave instead. He then rides back to town to face Clay. Meanwhile, the judge, upset by his son's turn to lawlessness, tells Clay to stop or he will shoot. Pushing his father aside, Clay mounts his horse and is about the lead the men to Ft. Dalton when Drango arrives. After shooting Drango's horse from beneath him, Clay wounds Drango and is about to kill him when the judge shoots Clay and implores the townsfolk to lay down their guns for good. After one of the men offers Drango his own horse, Drango promises to petition Ft. Dalton for extra supplies, and as he rides toward the Fort, Jeb and the others fall in behind.