Saturday, August 10, 2013

Oates by Eric Lanke

A little while ago, I made my novel, Columbia, available for download from this blog.

Columbia is the story of Theodore Lomax, 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.

The novel is told from Lomax's point of view, but there are ten other supporting characters, each with a story of his or her own. "Oates" is one of these stories, centering on the character of David Oates, and describing the life he led before joining the Union Army and his first experience with battle.

There was a time when I thought these stories should alternate with the chapters in Columbia, presenting a richer but perhaps more tangled tapestry of the lives that painfully converge in the novel's climactic scenes. But Columbia is clearly a more coherent narrative without them. Still, they were valuable to me as an author, and I hope you find them useful and enjoyable as a reader.

Oates by Eric Lanke - $3

Clicking the "Add to Cart" button will take you through a short payment process and provide you with a PDF download of the story that you can read on your computer or tablet, or which you can print at your convenience. The story is about 7,300 words and the document is 24 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 are the first thousand or so words.

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Oates had never been scared before. He thought he had. He guessed everyone thought they had, at one time or another. But early on he discovered there was no such thing as being scared until you were scared like he had been at Shiloh.

He wasn’t even supposed to be there. Not in the thick of it, at least. He had been on detached duty, detached from his own regiment and thrown in with some Illinois farmboys for a reason he had never been able to learn. The first lieutenant had just come up to him that morning and said Oates and about forty other men, two complete companies, had been ordered to fall in with another regiment for some forward maneuvers. That was it. No explanation offered.

Oates had not been in the army long at that time, and he had been actively engaged in the field for almost no time at all. He had volunteered at the mustering office in his hometown of Fond du Lac shortly after the firing on Fort Sumter, but had spent much of his time since then training with other Wisconsin recruits at Camp Randall in Madison. He hadn’t learned until the first winter of the war that he would be part of one of the Wisconsin units slated for duty in the west, and it wasn’t until after the first of the year that he was told he would be serving in a brigade newly formed under the command of one William Tecumseh Sherman. Oates had never even heard the name before, and now, in early April 1862, he had allowed himself to grow somewhat familiar with it, and he realized he still had never actually seen the man other than as a distant figure, usually on horseback. But despite this lack of familiarity with his commanding general, and despite his genuine want of combat experience, Corporal David C. Oates was enough of a soldier to know an order when he heard one, and also to know that orders had to be followed, whether they came with explanations or not.

As expected, after reporting for duty with the Illinois colonel, Oates and the other men from his regiment were taken forward, farther than any of them had ever been taken before. They marched for what seemed like an hour through the Union camp, past countless other regiments, some of whom were forming for what would soon be their own advances, others who seemed sprawled out on the earth as if they had already done all the work they were ever going to do. Although Oates had not made many friends in the army, as they continued to move forward he glanced around at the faces of his comrades and saw the same look of fear and uncertainty he knew had to adorn his own. Seeing so many others who seemed to be in the same position as he, who were suddenly being forced to wrestle with their own frightful inexperience, it gave Oates a small measure of the confidence he needed to keep himself moving forward.

When they were finally brought to a halt, it was in a lightly wooded area atop a small rise overlooking a long plain. Oates and the others who had marched with him looked out across that plain and saw there were no other Union troops ahead of them. There weren’t any enemy soldiers at that time, either. There wasn’t anything out on the plain, it seemed, except for a small white-washed chapel, but that didn’t matter. The absence of any friendly forces meant only one thing to those anxious young men. They were the front. In the battle that was to come, the battle that they had been brought forward to fight, they had been chosen to stand on the front line and receive the first salvos of the enemy.

It was a frightening proposition, and there wasn’t a man in that strengthened brigade who did not feel the significance of it pressing down on him like a great stone weight that had reached the point in its clockwork descent which forced him to crouch beneath its looming shadow. But in truth, none of them had been selected to comprise the forward salient of the Union Army, and as the worrisome minutes ticked by, each man who had seen the weight lower to within the immediacy of his concerns saw it rise again to a safer and less troubling distance as other regiments in blue were marched into positions out in the field before him.

That is when the Illinois colonel turned to his captains, the captains subsequently turned to their lieutenants, and the lieutenants finally turned to their soldiers and privates, and revealed what the general (not their general, the one commanding their brigade, but the general, the one commanding the entire army, the newly-nicknamed Unconditional Surrender Grant) had decided would be their role in the forthcoming battle.

“Okay, boys,” began the second lieutenant through whose words Oates and the other Wisconsin soldiers heard Grant’s wisdom and strategy, “listen up and listen good. The Rebs, they’re all massed up behind those trees on the other side of these fields. They’ve been forming for an attack since early this morning, since before most of you boys were even up. They’re hoping to hit us before Buell gets here. Any minute now, they’re going to pop out from between those trees and launch themselves against us. Those boys out ahead of us, they’re going to take the first hit, but we need to be ready because it’s our job to fill any holes the Rebs are able to punch in our line. We’re what the textbooks call the reserves, and we’re going to be ordered forward by the company, by the regiment, or by the brigade as needed to throw back any Rebs that are slippery enough to sneak through our front. You boys have got to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. Keep your eyes on me and, when the time comes, do exactly what I tell you and do it quick. Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” the voices echoed in unison around Oates.

Oates did not know if his voice had been included with those of the others. He had felt the words sound within him, he had felt the strength of his desire to measure up to the orders placed before him and to perform them in a manner exceeding the expectations of he who issued them, but he could not tell if he had been able to express those sentiments in the manner prescribed by the United States Army. He could not tell if he had been able to speak. At the time his mouth was too dry to know if it was even part of his face.

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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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