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Theodore Lomax is a young man committed to the ideal of human freedom who joins the Union Army late in the Civil War. Assigned to the force commanded by General Sherman as it begins its march on Columbia, he develops a friendship with David Oates, a veteran corporal, and comes to know William Floyd, leader of a squad of “bummers”—soldiers ordered to forage the countryside for supplies and destroy everything else of value to the Confederacy.
Floyd leads Lomax and Oates into Columbia, where thousands of soldiers wantonly destroy civilian property. Lomax at first participates in these acts, believing they are justified by resistance to the cause of emancipation. Oates disagrees and, after appealing to Lomax’s latent conscience, abandons his friend and leaves the city. Other marauding soldiers join them, including Albert Powell. The destruction now escalates into violence against the civilians themselves, and Lomax suddenly questions the legitimacy of their cause. When Powell attempts to rape a teenage slave named Sally, Lomax strikes out, killing Powell and fleeing with Sally.
Sally takes Lomax to the home of her owner, Victoria Andrews. There, Lomax struggles with the morality of his actions and those of his countrymen, even as he fights to protect the home and its occupants from their advancing destruction. He and Victoria use force and guile to repel the trespassers, but the home is eventually invaded by Floyd and his bummers. Following a contest of wills, Floyd allows Lomax and the others to escape the utter destruction of the home.
They seek shelter with a group of displaced women in a church tended by an elderly minister, Archibald Lynch, and a missionary nun, Sister Sophia. Lynch embraces Lomax, seeing in him God’s power to save wayward souls, but Lomax stands aloof, confused by the way Sally as a slave is excluded from their besieged community. Sophia attempts to counsel Lomax, but he rejects her perspective as simplistically dichotomous, and decides that he, uninfluenced by dimly perceived forces of “good” or “evil,” must determine his own course of action.
Floyd leads an attack on the church, and the bummers murder Lynch for his open defiance and savagely beat Lomax for protecting the women from their lecherous advances. Sophia helps Lomax escape with Victoria and a few others, and they take refuge in the church’s cemetery. There, Victoria protectively nurses Lomax, seeing in his struggle to save them a painful reminder of the sacrifices of her four sons, all killed in the war. With Lomax tenuously conscious, she tells him about her sons, especially a gifted and artistic favorite, with the hope that they will live on in Lomax’s memory, and thereby build a bridge over the gulf which has plunged them all into war.
After destroying the church, the bummers invade the cemetery. Lomax is too weak to flee, and with Sophia as his lone protector, they watch the soldiers exhume the southern dead, pilfer their valuables, and parade drunkenly around in their clothing. Sophia prays fervently to God, but Lomax knows God, if He exists at all, has abandoned them all to their own devices.
The bummers leave the cemetery an hour or so before dawn. In the morning, Lomax and Sophia are discovered by a survey party led by General Sherman. Sophia accuses the general of diabolical crimes and, when he endorses the atrocities as necessary to crush the southern fighting spirit, Lomax is sickened and loses consciousness. Intent on caring for Lomax’s wounds, Sherman’s men must forcibly separate him from Sophia’s protective embrace. Lomax hears her cries of injustice, but in his befuddled state, he can only wonder at their significance.
The novel tells this story from Lomax’s perspective in chapters interspersed with narrative sketches of incidents from the lives of the supporting characters. These alternating stories are the reflections in broken glass referred to in the novel’s title. In the painful intersection of all these lives, the novel speculates on the paths that converge to bring the characters together, and on the nature of a design that could be the master of such complexity.