In northern Alabama sometime during the Civil War, a man stands on Owl Creek Bridge with his hands tied behind his back and a rope around his neck. He is surrounded by Union soldiers, both on the bridge itself and on the nearby bank, who are preparing to execute him. The man himself is about thirty-five, and bears the clothes and bearing of a gentleman rather than a military figure. Nevertheless, his execution is imminent.
The soldiers continue their preparations, leaving the man standing on one end of a board stuck out over the bridge, and a Union sergeant standing on the other end. When the sergeant steps away, the man will fall towards the creek and the rope will break his neck. As his doom draws near, the man begins to experience a heightened awareness of reality: first spotting a small piece of driftwood moving down the stream, then mistaking the ticking of his watch for a loud, drawn-out tolling “like the stroke of a blacksmith's hammer upon the anvil.” He closes his eyes and fixes his thoughts on his family, then opens them and muses desperately on some means of getting free and getting back to them. As he does so, the sergeant steps off of the plank.
In a flashback, the man’s name is revealed to be Peyton Farquhar, a farmer and slave owner whose plantation lay close to Owl Creek Bridge. One evening, a man in a Confederate uniform rides up and reveals that a union stockade has been built at Owl Creek Bridge, which might be set on fire. It turns out that the soldier is a Union scout dressed in a Confederate uniform. The story implies that Farquhar attempts to sabotage the stockade and is captured, leading to his execution shortly thereafter.
As the sergeant steps away, the rope pulls taut. In that instant, Farquhar seems to lose consciousness, only to come to his senses at the bottom of the creek, with the rope apparently snapped. He fights his way to the surface and frees himself from his bonds. As he does so, his senses slowly recover and soon become preternaturally keen, allowing him to notice little details about his surroundings well beyond normal sights and sounds. He swims away as the Union soldiers shoot after him, making it to shore and disappearing into the woods.
The injuries inflicted in his escape continue to dog him as he makes his way through the forest towards his home. He finds no sign of human habitation in the woods and as the afternoon turns into evening, his surroundings take on a surreal quality. The constellations in the sky are unnatural and strange, and the path he walks seems too straight and wide for human hands to have made. He hears whispers in an unknown language from the woods.
Then, suddenly, he finds himself at the gate of his own home, with his wife coming down the porch to greet him. He rushes up to her smiling face, only to feel a blow on his neck and experience a blinding white light that fades to black.
His body swings from the noose at Owl Creek Bridge. He never escaped at all.