Saturday, July 13, 2013

Columbia by Eric Lanke

Theodore Lomax is a nineteen-year-old Union solider in the American Civil War, and as committed as any to the ideal of human freedom. After being assigned to the army of William Tecumseh Sherman, shortly after the general’s infamous March to the Sea, he willingly participates in the destruction of civilian property in Columbia, South Carolina, believing his acts are justified by Southern resistance to the Northern cause of emancipation. But when the destruction escalates into violence against the civilians themselves, he becomes disillusioned, and feels compelled to strike out in opposition to his own countrymen.

So begins Columbia, my seventh novel, and the first that I have decided to make available through this blog. I hope you will consider buying it and letting me know what you think.

Columbia by Eric Lanke - $9
Clicking the "Add to Cart" button will take you through a short payment process and provide you with a PDF download of the novel that you can read on your computer or tablet, or which you can print at your convenience. The novel is just shy of 100,000 words and the manuscript is 336 pages long. Given its theme and historical setting, the work reflects the racism of the time, and includes episodes of violence and strong language.

Want a sample? Here's the first chapter.

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Lomax felt like a seabird.

Running down the long slope from a point of observation above the city, and allowing the momentum of his descent to carry him ever forward, he felt like one of the birds he had first seen as a Northerner stationed briefly in Savannah. There, he had marveled at the great white birds and their tremendous wingspans, swooping down from airy realms over the open face of the ocean, folding their feathery wings together at the last possible moment, and plunging swiftly below the water’s rolling surface to capture unsuspecting fish in their beaks. Now, his sense of connection with that memory was undeniably strong, so strong that he caught himself with his arms out at his sides, slowly beating them up and down against the wind of his charge. In that heart-swelling moment, he felt as though he truly had wings like the white birds of Savannah, wings powerful enough to drive him willfully down into a world foreign from the one he called his own.

That world was the city of Columbia, South Carolina. As he ran down towards the town, he watched the men ahead of him pour forth like a terrible flood, washing up streets and dividing around buildings, surging forward in a resistless tide. From his vantage point, the blue fabric the men wore on their backs almost made them look like water flowing unchecked over the dark and dirty streets.

Stacks of burning bales of cotton lined those streets, their fires giving off an enormous amount of heat, and some of them already grown large enough to spread to the nearby buildings and storefronts. As he began moving up the length of Columbia’s main thoroughfare, he could feel the heat push up against him like a living thing, welcoming him to the city the way pickpockets sometimes do, blowing acrid breath into his face and probing inquisitive fingers under his clothing. The air around him was filled with floating motes of fire and ash, smoldering specks of cotton blown off the bales by a swirling and unforgiving breeze. It churned the fiery debris in one continuous cycle both above his head and down around his feet, moving the particles great distances as they devoured their small amount of fuel, but never allowing them to escape the confines of the rooftops lining the street.

He had no idea where he was going, for the moment content to let Floyd lead the way. The sheer number of Union soldiers gathered in the street—some breaking into buildings, some kicking at the burning bales to send great plumes of flaming debris into the air, others parading up and down, arms linked together in gleeful celebration—made his passage difficult and forced him and his three companions to move swiftly in a snaking single file. He had no time to look behind to see if Oates was able to stay with the group. He needed all his concentration and dexterity not to lose the smaller and zig-zagging form of Decker. Floyd, in his position at the head of their small contingent, was all but lost to him, and whether Floyd actually led them through that loud and oppressively hot channel, he had no way of knowing.

After five or six blocks the crowd thinned out, and they were able to congregate at an intersection. They were all enlisted men—Sergeant William Floyd of Illinois, and Sergeant Theodore Lomax, Corporal David Oates, and Private Enis Decker of Wisconsin—and none of them had known each other before joining the army. Behind them the bedlam raged ever louder, but down each of the remaining three streets Lomax saw only a few Union troops, most of them running in one direction or another, some of them smashing windows as they ran. In their deafening rush into the heat of the city, there hadn’t been any sign of either Confederate forces or local townspeople. As near as he could tell, they had all cleared out before the Union arrival.

Floyd looked at each of them in turn, his bearded face sweating freely. “Quite a little run, eh?” he said, hitching once or twice to catch his breath. “Wasn’t sure we’d make it through. You boys have any trouble keeping up?”

“No,” Decker answered immediately, trembling with excitement as if shivering from cold. “I was with you all the way, Bill.”

Floyd clapped the younger man warmly on the shoulder. “Well, let’s go stake our own claim, then. Kicking in doors and breaking windows is fine for the rest of this lot, but I’ve got something a little more personal in mind for the residents of this fair city.”

“Looks to me like all the locals have already left town, Bill,” Oates said. “I don’t know about you, but I kept my eyes open on the way in and all I saw were empty buildings and blue uniforms. You know something we don’t?”

If Floyd was rankled by the sarcasm in Oates’s voice, he showed no outward signs of it. “I know the lousy Rebs are here somewhere, Davey-boy. Maybe you didn’t see it way at the back like you were, but one of their little monsters tried to take a shot at me. With this!” he said, pulling an old and rusty pistol, certainly not of government issue, out of his belt and holding it up for them to see. “Little kid couldn’t have been more than ten years old.”

Lomax turned to Oates and Decker and saw the same looks of incomprehension on their faces. If such an incident as Floyd described had actually happened, none of them had seen it in all the confusion of rushing into town.

Floyd was what the army had come to call a bummer—a kind of scout, who spent most of his time out ahead of the Union army, looking for things that might help the Confederate cause and destroying them. He always wore a ruffled red shirt under his blue sergeant’s jacket, something he had picked up on one of his raids. Lomax didn’t remember seeing the pistol tucked in Floyd’s waistband when they had stood together on the rise outside of town, although he supposed it may have been hidden by one of the ruffles.

“No, sir,” Floyd resumed, tucking the pistol back into his belt. “They didn’t all bug out of town. They never do. There’s always some that stay behind to try and protect their homes and property. You think they would’ve all learned by now that we mean business and that the time for their fun and games is over. Their rebellion is dead. It died with Atlanta, and all we’ve been doing since then is beating a bloody corpse.”

Lomax had not seen the burning of Atlanta. He had joined up later than most; in 1863, after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect, and had spent much of the time since then participating in one endless drill in a camp north of Washington. He had only gone on active duty a month and a half ago. That was after the destruction of Atlanta and, although he had not witnessed it, he had heard about it, to be sure. It was impossible to be part of that army and not hear about the burning of Atlanta.

“They’ve already lost,” Floyd said, “but there are still so many that don’t realize it, or at least don’t want to admit it to themselves. Those are the Rebs I mean to find. Those are the Rebs I mean to show just how badly they’ve lost this thing. Don’t try to tell me they ain’t here, because they are. They won’t be out in the open, but they’ll be here, hiding in their parlors and basements and outhouses. I’m going to find them, and when I do, I’m going to teach them a very hard lesson indeed.”

“I don’t know, Bill,” Oates said. “Seems to me we’ve been teaching them a hard lesson ever since we left Atlanta.”

“Aaaaah!” Floyd said irritably, dismissing Oates with a quick swipe of his right hand. “Piss on them. They’re just getting what they got coming. You of all people should be able to see that, Davey-boy. You’ve been with this army for as long as I can remember. You didn’t just come from Savannah like these other two. You’ve come all the way from the beginning. Christ, you were at Shiloh, weren’t you?”

Oates’s response was quiet and reserved. “Yes, Bill. I was at Shiloh.”

Floyd nodded his head vigorously. “Then you know what I’m talking about. The Rebs started this dirty war. It’s because of them that things like Shiloh happened. Can’t you see the time has finally come for them to pay for all they’ve done? Can’t you see that Uncle Billy brought us here to give them the whipping they deserve?”

Uncle Billy was the nickname almost everyone in the army used for their commanding general, William Tecumseh Sherman. Lomax had seen him once, as the general reviewed his troops before marching them out of Savannah. He looked a grim character to Lomax, who had never once thought of him as Uncle Billy.

“Can’t you all see that?” Floyd said, studying them each as if attempting to weigh the effect of his words on each of their souls.

For Lomax, at least, the sergeant’s words were chilling, alluding, as they did, to the deliberate torment of civilians and the destruction of their property. He knew all about the orders Sherman had issued, and the latitude he had given the bummers in carrying them out. Plenty of destruction had evidently occurred during the trek from Atlanta to Savannah, and even more had definitely been accomplished on the march from Savannah to here. He had seen that with his own eyes. His position in the rear of the column meant that he had marched through a number of towns his comrades had already destroyed. He had seen the blackened skeletons of the buildings they had burned. He had seen the vacant and hopeless eyes of the survivors they had left behind. If men like Floyd had saved the worst of their bestial appetites for a smorgasbord of violence in Columbia, then Lomax, even with his memory fresh with images of burned villages and homeless women, had little conception of what it was they truly meant to do.

“Come on now, boys,” Floyd said. “Each of you said you were with me when we stood on that hill outside of town. Don’t go losing your fire now.”

“Who’s losing their fire?” Decker demanded. “Not me, Bill. I still got my fire. Hell if I don’t. Let’s go get them Rebs and make them pay for what they did!”

Floyd accepted Decker’s loyalty with a quick nod of his head and turned his attention fully on Lomax. “What about you, Teddy? You in this thing or not?”

Lomax hated it when people called him Teddy, and Floyd knew it. He had made it clear he preferred the name Theo, but Floyd continued to call him Teddy, especially in situations like this one, where Lomax sensed Floyd was trying to goad him into doing something he was not sure he should do.

But now he was conflicted, because some part of him did want to stay. Despite persistent fears over what he might witness and concerns over what he might be called on to do, he knew in his heart he wanted to stay, that he wanted to be a part of whatever the grand assault on this Rebel capitol was going to be. Most of it came from deep within himself, taking the form of a desire to engage in this final struggle against the enemies of liberty and justice, to finally make his statement after spending two years out of action in Wisconsin and two more away from it in that training camp north of Washington. But he knew part of it also came out of a strange desire to please Floyd, to measure up adequately in the older sergeant’s eyes. It was a compulsion he did not fully understand, knowing only that it affected his judgment in a way he couldn’t describe. If pressed, he might have said he felt as though Floyd ranked him, even though they both had attained the same position in their respective regiments. But whereas both of Lomax’s promotions had come in the training camp—the first seemingly by random chance and the second because of his efficiency in filing activity reports—Floyd had risen from private to corporal and from corporal to sergeant because of his performance on the field of battle.

“Come on, Teddy,” Floyd said. “What’s it going to be? If you’re going to go, you’d better decide to go now. I don’t want to turn around sometime later and find you gone.”

Lomax met the older man’s eyes as solidly as he could. “I’m not going anywhere, Bill. I’m with you all the way in this thing.”

Floyd did not smile. If anything, his face turned even more serious than before. “I’m going to hold you to that, Teddy. I really am.”

Lomax took a deep breath, the scent of burning cotton filling both his nostrils. “You go right ahead, Bill. You go right ahead.”

The two men stood looking at each other for a few moments in silence. Beside him, Lomax could sense Oates fidgeting, but he knew the importance of not turning away from Floyd.

“Well,” Decker said. “What the hell are we waiting for then? Let’s get going.”

Then a smile crept slowly over Floyd’s face, his eyes still fixing their steady and resolute gaze on Lomax. “Yes,” he said as his smile broke open into a toothy grin. “What are we waiting for? Follow me, boys. Old Bill knows where them damn Rebels are hiding.”

Floyd turned and began to move swiftly away from his followers. Decker gave a boisterous cheer and started off immediately behind him. Lomax, Floyd’s strange spell fading abruptly from his consciousness, gave himself half a moment to consider looking at Oates. Now that Floyd was gone it would be safe to do so, but he quickly decided against it. If he looked at Oates now, everything that had just passed between him and Floyd would evaporate along with his resolve and he wouldn’t go traipsing after him and Decker. If he looked at Oates now, the two of them would turn and march promptly back out of town without so much as a word of explanation between them. Oates wanted to leave. Lomax didn’t have to look at him to know that. That’s why Floyd hadn’t asked him to recommit himself to their adventure the way he had with Decker and Lomax. They could all feel the desire to leave coming off Oates like a powerful heat. Oates wanted to leave and he wanted Lomax to leave with him.

Lomax started forward after Decker.

“Theo,” Oates said.

He did not pause. He kept moving forward, forcing Oates to tag along behind him.

“Theo,” Oates said again.


“Let’s go. Let’s get out of here.”

“No. I don’t want to. I want to see what’s going to happen.”

Oates kept pace behind him, his voice coming unseen over Lomax’s shoulder. “Something bad is going to happen. Do you want to see that?”

“Yes,” he said pointedly. “Good or bad, I don’t care. Whatever it is, it’s going to big, and I want to be a part of it when it happens.”

“No, you don’t, Theo,” Oates said, sounding for all the world like the very voice of doom. “Trust me, I know. No, you don’t.”

Lomax shook his head, trying to dislodge Oates from his conscience, and quickened his pace to keep up with the steadily advancing Floyd and Decker. He needed to ignore Oates as much as he could and keep moving forward. Because Oates, of course, was right. Something bad was going to happen here, something that might very well be worse than anything that had ever happened before. It could be felt in the very air around them, rolling up and down the streets of the Southern town like a fog of pestilence. But he had spoken honestly when he had said he wanted to be part of it. It was going to be bad, but that could be overlooked, because it was also going to be big, it was going to be important. What happened over the next few hours in the capitol of the state that had started the Southern Confederacy, now that 60,000 Union troops had arrived to dispense the justice that had been four years in coming, could very well determine the outcome of the war. And Lomax—after spending so much time away from the conflict, partly by his own indecision and partly by the vagaries of army organization and training—was not going to miss his chance to be part of such a monumental achievement, no matter what somebody like Oates told him.

But even as he ran after Floyd and Decker, even as he did everything he could to shut Oates’s warning out of his head, he allowed himself a quick look over his shoulder to see if his friend was still with them, to make sure Oates, against his better judgment, had decided to trail along. Deep within himself, where thoughts and ideas existed in their purest form, in fragments too rough and unhewn to be pieced together into words and sentences, he knew he needed Oates. If he was going to get through the tribulations that lay ahead, he was going to need to rely heavily on Oates and his guidance. They all would.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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