The scene is Mobile, Alabama, in the spring of 1870, five years after the end of the American Civil War. William Yancey, a novice reporter for a small local newspaper, receives the opportunity of a lifetime when he is chosen to interview the reclusive John Ephraim Haynes, "The Most Hated Man in the Southern States," former founder and President of the Great Southern Railroad, whose old business is mired in scandal and whose reputation is now in tatters. As the interview unfolds, Yancey learns much about the colorful history of the Great Southern and its ambitious owner, from its humble origins and the heady days of antebellum prosperity to Haynes's role in the War and the disastrous chain of events that would earn him his nickname.
This work contains examples of:
- 0% Approval Rating: Haynes was never the most popular of men, but his role in the events of the Civil War has left his reputation and that of his railroad in ruins.
- All Issues Are Political Issues: The narrative takes place during the heyday of plantation slavery, and Haynes notes that Southerners judge nearly everything and everyone of importance by whether or not they can be useful to keeping alive their "peculiar institution." Haynes himself finds the practice abhorrent but tries to be circumspect about the matter — not that this keeps him from making enemies.
- Alternate History: The Great Southern Railroad's success gives the Confederate States of America a much better situation in this world than it enjoyed in our own, though the war still ends up being a desperate scramble to avert total collapse in its final stages. The Confederates just barely pull victory from the jaws of defeat, only to collapse immediately thereafter when a disastrous political blunder proves to be the final straw.
- Historical-Domain Character: Being an influential railroad man in the antebellum South, Haynes occasionally encounters other powerful and influential men in the business and political spheres, such as Robert Rhett, P. G. T. Beauregard, and Lammot du Pont.
- Honest Corporate Executive: Despite his ruthlessness and the very nature of the railroad business, Haynes has a reputation as a scrupulously honest businessman who stands by his employees and makes every effort to fulfill his contracts. Some of this is due to Deliberate Values Dissonance, however, as some of his practices — though not at all unusual for the time — would land a man in jail in this day and age.
- It Will Never Catch On: Haynes has this reaction on seeing the extravagant dining car his engineers have fitted out for the VIP passengers in the Great Race, believing the whole thing to be somewhat too ridiculous for anything more than a one-time promotional stunt.Haynes: The more fool I, as within a decade fine dining and smoking lounges were part of the equipage of every great railroad, not to mention sleeping coaches and private cars.
- My Country, Right or Wrong: Haynes has no love for the South's "peculiar institution" but ultimately ends up supporting them out of love for his wife.
- Racing the Train: It wouldn't be a story about the Age of Steam without a locomotive race or two, now, would it?
Haynes: More than one young fool was hurt while racing his favorite horse against our locomotives, or while leaping for a moving rail car.
- The first notable example is the Great Race of 1848, between the Great Southern's General Scott and the Mississippi steamboat Sultana, done as a promotional stunt for the railroad.
- More generally, in the buildup to the Great Race itself, Haynes makes an aside about "racing the train" as a dangerous pastime already in vogue among the young and foolhardy of his day:
- Much later in the story, Haynes has to chase down a band of Union saboteurs who have hijacked one of his trains, leading to a running gun battle between his crew and the hijackers.
- Railroad Baron: The tale is about John Ephraim Haynes, founder and President of the Great Southern Railroad, and the rise and fall of his railroad empire.
- The Rival: Robert Barnwell Rhett, a member of the infamous Fire-Eaters, takes umbrage with Haynes's distaste for slavery, sparking a lifelong rivalry between the two men. This takes a turn for the tragic when Rhett and Haynes are forced to work together during the Civil War, ultimately costing both men their careers and everything they worked for.
- Won the War, Lost the Peace: The ultimate fate of the Confederate States of America in this world's version of the Civil War. John B. McClellan wins the 1864 Presidential election and negotiates peace with the South, but the Confederates have nearly destroyed their own country to win the war and are governed by an incompetent administration to boot. When McClellan offers amnesty to any state that will secede from the Confederacy and voluntarily rejoin the Union, the CSA practically collapses overnight.