"Ambuscade" (Text Key 2080)

short story

"Ambuscade" was the first of a series of Civil War stories centered on young Bayard Sartoris, who as an old man first appeared in the Yoknapatawpha fiction as a major character in Flags in the Dust (1929), and his black friend (and Sartoris family slave) Ringo. It was published September 29, 1934 in the Saturday Evening Post; subsequent stories "Retreat," "Raid," and "The Unvanquished" were published in the Post later that year, while two other stories in the series, "Skirmish at Sartoris" and "Vendée," were published in Scribner's in April 1935 and Saturday Evening Post in December 1936. Faulkner revised the stories, along with one other unpublished story, "An Odor of Verbena," to form the novel The Unvanquished, which was published in 1938; the individual stories retained their original titles except for "The Unvanquished," which was re-titled "Riposte at Tertio" in the book. The original magazine versions of "Ambuscade" and the other stories in the series have since been reprinted in Uncollected Stories, which provides the version of "Ambuscade" here.

The magazine version of "Ambuscade" lacks some of the background and detail of the version in The Unvanquished. Like all of the stories in this series, it is narrated by an adult Bayard Sartoris looking back at his experiences during and after the Civil War. "Ambuscade" is the earliest story in the sequence, set in 1862 (or possibly later — see note below), before the war had fully reached Yoknapatawpha County and the Sartoris plantation; the plot, in fact, depicts Bayard's and Ringo's first glimpse of "Yankee" soldiers, and their attempt to vanquish them. It has humorous elements, particularly the boys' punishment for using the word "bastard" and the ingenious method Bayard's grandmother uses to hide the boys from Union soldiers. Despite these lighthearted elements, however, the story serves to introduce a central theme of these stories: the reality of war and killing, how these things differ from children's play, and the maturation of Bayard from a child surrounded by war and violence to a man who chooses a less violent path. The story also offers historically accurate glimpses of life in Mississippi during the early years of the Civil War, including the fears that slaves would turn against their masters and that invading troops would confiscate valuables such as livestock and silverware.

Note: We are following the lead of James Hinkle and Robert McCoy in their book Reading Faulkner: The Unvanquished (University Press of Mississippi, 1995), in choosing to date the events of the story in the summer of 1862. There are several compelling reasons to do so. First, Corinth actually fell to Union troops at the end of May 1862, which can explain Loosh's assumption that the boys had not yet learned about that Confederate loss. Vicksburg, meanwhile, was facing heavy bombardment from Admiral Farragutt on the Mississippi River in May, shelling that continued in June and July 1862, so it is not difficult to imagine rumors (or fears) that Vicksburg had fallen to Union forces that summer of 1862, as Loosh tells the boys. Another reason supporting 1862 is that this is when Union soldiers began to arrive in north Mississippi. However, the story also includes historical references that make 1862 problematic. The most obvious is that Vicksburg actually did fall to Union forces on July 4, 1863. The story also makes reference to General John Pemberton, who did not assume command of Vicksburg's defenses until October 1862, and Bayard mentions Chickamauga and Lookout Mountain, battles that did not occur until September and November 1863, respectively — details which would make even the summer of 1863 problematic. These historical anomalies may be explained by failures of memory from whenever Bayard Sartoris is remembering the story years later, but just as likely is Faulkner's own decision not to adhere to strict historical accuracy in writing this coming-of-age Civil War story. (Faulkner did, in fact, remove the Chickamauga and Lookout Mountain references in the revised version of the story that appears in The Unvanquished, but he retained references to Pemberton.) The final and most compelling reason to date this story in 1862, however, is the one date-specific "fact" in the story: Bayard's assertion that he was twelve years old when the incidents in the story took place. Other stories and novels consistently indicate that Bayard and Ringo were born in September 1849, which would mean they were both twelve in the summer of 1862.

First Publisher: 
Saturday Evening Post
First Publisher Date: 
September 29, 1934
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Edit Copy Publisher: 
Vintage International
Edit Copy Publisher Location: 
New York
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How to cite this resource:
Froehlich, Peter, John Padgett, and William Teem. "Faulkner's 'Ambuscade.'" Added to the project: 2013.  Additional editing 2020: Johannes H. Burgers, Theresa M. Towner. Digital Yoknapatawpha, University of Virginia, http://faulkner.iath.virginia.edu