The protagonist of the story is a (fictional) young United States Army lieutenant named Philip Nolan, who developed a friendship with the visiting Aaron Burr. When Burr is tried for treason (as he actually was in 1807), Nolan was tried as an accomplice. During his testimony, Nolan bitterly renounced his nation, angrily shouting "Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!" (When the novel was first published, the word "damn" was considered too obscene for publication.) Upon conviction, the judge icily granted Nolan his wish: he was to spend the rest of his life on warships of the United States Navy, in exile, with no right to ever again set foot on U.S. soil, and with no mention ever again made to him about his country.
The sentence is carried out to the letter. For the rest of his life, Nolan is transported from ship to ship, living his life out as a prisoner on the high seas, never once being allowed back in a home port. None of the sailors in whose custody Nolan remains are allowed to speak to him about the U.S., and his newspapers are censored. Nolan is unrepentant at first, but over the years becomes sadder and wiser, and desperate for news. One day he says to a young officer, as he is being rowed over to another ship on which he is to be held,
Deprived of a homeland, Nolan slowly and painfully learned the true worth of his country. He missed it more than his friends or family, more than art or music or love or nature. Without it, he was nothing. Dying, he shows his room to an officer named Danforth; it is "a little shrine" of patriotism. The Stars and Stripes are draped around a picture of George Washington. Over his bed, Nolan had painted an eagle, with lightning "blazing from his beak" and his claw grasping the globe. At the foot of his bed was a dated map of the old territories. Nolan smiled. "Here, you see, I have a country!"
Nolan dies content after Danforth finally tells him all that has happened to the U.S. since his sentence was imposed.
In the story, Hale skillfully convinced many readers that Nolan was an actual figure, thus increasing the story's effectiveness as a piece of patriotic literature. He achieved this realism through verisimilitude, creating an "air" of reality. By frequently mentioning specific dates and places and using numerous contemporary references, Hale grounds his story in a firm foundation of history and makes his story seem like a record of actual events.
Furthermore, Hale makes the narrator of the story, Frederick Ingham, seem a strongly reliable individual. Throughout the text, Ingham often acknowledges his mistakes and identifies possible lapses in his memory. For this reason, readers believe Ingham's sense of honesty, and automatically deem him a trustworthy and, to some extent, an accurate narrator.
Finally, Hale utilizes a plain style, maintaining an unstilted and almost colloquial feel. Thus, he makes his story easy to relate to, and makes the patriotic morals of the story accessible to common people.
Sometime in the late US Civil War a Northern (?) military officer (it is unclear North or South) uttered that he did not want to see America again. Someone in the military chain of command below President Lincoln (possibly with the involvement of the President, it is unclear) sentenced him to permanent exile on US merchant marine ships. The officer died in a ship's gaol in Goa in the 1880s.
This bit of American history was documented by Robert Ripley in his Believe it or Not comic strip some time after 1931 (Believe it or Not Omnibus) but before 1942 (Series 2 or Series 3). Ripley used existing documentation of the case -- so it is possible that the US National Archive system may have been consulted in the process.
It is unclear whether this fictional story influenced the case of the officer.
There were other movies made in 1925 and 1937 and another slated for distribution in 2008.