Life before the books
Starbuck is born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of radical abolitionist minister Reverend Dr. Elial Starbuck. He lives a relatively pious childhood, and is regularly beaten by his father, which leaves him unprepared for the outside world.
Starbuck goes to the Yale Seminary, as his father hopes he will follow him into the ministry. Here Starbuck meets several notable figures, including Oliver Wendell Holmes and his son Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.. He also meets his close friend Adam Faulconer, who is also studying at the seminary.
Major events in the first book
After becoming enamored with an actress, Starbuck drops out of school to run away with her. Unfortunately, the actress scams both Starbuck and her boyfriend/director. With all of his money gone, Starbuck goes to Virginia to seek aid from Faulconer. However, before he can get to Faulconer's house, news of the attack on Fort Sumter causes a riot to break out in the streets. The crowd grabs Starbuck and another man, who turns out to be a dentist from the North. The crowd then proceeds to tar and feather the dentist, and are planning to do the same to Starbuck when Adam Faulconer's father, Washington Faulconer, rides in and saves him.
The two return to the Faulconer estate and Starbuck is eventually persuaded to join the "Faulconer Legion," a (fictional) regiment that Faulconer is raising at his own expense in order to aid the new Confederacy should war with the north become unavoidable. He is commissioned a second Lieutenant and charged with helping Faulconer equip the regiment.
Although Faulconer is generous to Starbuck, people - most notable Thaddeus Bird and Belvedere Delaney - continuously warn him that Faulconer's generosity will remain only as long as Starbuck reveres him. They say that Faulconer is in reality a spiteful and weak man who craves admiration and glory and receives it only by his wealth. Starbuck however continuously defends his savior and despite the growing number of people, who give the same damning opinion of Faulconer, refuses to believe that the man who saved his life and treats him so well could be a bad man. The truth of Faulconer’s character and in what people say about him is confirmed on the Legion's first mission to destroy a rail bridge and major supply route of the Union. Faulconer overestimates the importance of the bridge as it can be re-erected in a matter of days, plans the entire operation badly, mainly by not bringing adequate waterproofing and allowing the equipment and supplies to become damp. This dampness prevents the gunpowder from igniting at the crucial moment. Frustrated with the failure and unable to admit responsibility Faulconer blames a delay which he believes to have been caused by Starbuck. When it transpires that the delay is not Starbuck’s fault but instead that of Sergeant Thomas Truslow, whom Faulconer fears, it is too late to back away from blaming the delay and rather than blame Truslow he insists that the fault lies on Starbuck, an easier target.
Faulconer is eventually successful in having his regiment posted to General Beauregard's army near Manassas Junction, though his organisation of the move is, true to form, desperately poor. Immediately prior to the Battle of Bull Run, Faulconer attempts to dispose of Starbuck by packing him off to his family in the north. Then convinced that the battle will be fought on the Confederate right, he abandons the legion in an attempt to secure orders to move his regiment from the left wing, decreeing that any orders to the contrary should be ignored. In his absence, Starbuck returns, having spotted the real Northern attack heading toward the Confederate left wing. After some difficulty, he convinces Colonel Nathan Evans, senior officer on the Confederate left, that an attack is imminent.
Upon his return to the Faulconer legion, Starbuck also convinces Thaddeus Bird, now a Major and the regiment's second in command, and Adam Faulconer (now a Captain) that the legion must attempt to save the Confederacy by supporting Evans' troops. But it is Sergeant Truslow who actually persuades the troops to advance after their divided loyalties to Faulconer - and their efforts to obey his parting order - cause a near collapse of authority.
In the ensuing battle, Starbuck sustains a thrashing from Faulconer, who blames him for the damage the legion takes while protecting the Confederate flank. But Faulconer receives a bullet in the arm from a union soldier, which ends Starbuck's beating; Adam Faulconer is also wounded. Starbuck then murders his enemy, Faulconer's future son in law, Ethan Ridley - whose corpse is instantly and fortuitously mangled by a shell, hiding the evidence. Faulconer and Truslow both see Starbuck fire the fatal shots, though Truslow defends Starbuck when Faulconer accuses him of the murder after the battle. In actuality, Starbuck's information and Bird's decision to join the desperate rearguard action saved the whole confederate army, but Faulconer is left with a burning hatred of Starbuck and a malicious intent to make his life as difficult - and short - as possible.
Despite his complete absence from the actual engagement, and his insistence that the legion should not support Nathan Evans, due to the heroism of his troops, Washington Faulconer ends the book as a hero in Confederate eyes, and several newspapers insist he should be given a brigade. With several officers killed in the battle, and Faulconer an invalid due to his wounds, Major Bird takes over command of the regiment. Starbuck ends the book promoted to Captain of K company (the regiment's company of skirmishers) with Truslow as his sergeant.