Colonel Sartoris is Faulkner's most enigmatic character. He is the most admired man in Yoknapatawpha County and, at the same time, he is probably one of the most difficult people to get along with in the entire county. Bayard makes a telling statement about his father in "Ambuscade." "He was not big," Bayard realizes, "it was just the things he did, that we knew he was doing, had been doing in Virginia and Tennessee, that made him seem big to us." In fact, when Colonel Sartoris ascends the stairs at home, his long sword often strikes against the steps, but, mounted upon his large horse Jupiter (an apt name for his horse since Jupiter was the supreme deity of the ancient Roman gods), the colonel seems to loom over everyone else.
At the beginning of the war, Colonel Sartoris is the first man to raise a regiment to fight against the Yankees. But, as we later discover, within one year the colonel was voted out of his command and another man was voted in as colonel of the regiment. Colonel Sartoris then left and came back to Yoknapatawpha County to organize his own troop of irregulars. We do not know exactly why he was voted out, but all indications point to his arrogance — his insistence that "right or wrong, John Sartoris is right," according to one of his loyal men (George Wyatt). Colonel Sartoris cannot be second in command; he is unable to take orders from anyone else. Thus, he literally deserts the Confederate Army and raises a troop of irregulars under the command of no one except himself; he is responsible to no one but himself. This is why he is considered a renegade by the Yankee forces and why they have issued a reward for his capture. In modern times, Sartoris' actions and tactics would be similar to guerrilla warfare, which was, in those times, completely unacceptable; during the Civil War, it was expected that great armies should confront each other directly. However, as the leader of a troop of irregulars, Colonel Sartoris becomes somewhat of an instant legend; he seems to be always in the vicinity or in the neighboring land, protecting women and children who have been left defenseless while their men folk are off fighting in Virginia for some general whose name no one is familiar with. Everyone knows about Sartoris though; everyone hears about his feats, and, consequently, he becomes the hometown folk hero; either he personally has protected many of the local families or else he has helped protect their kinfolks. However, we, the readers, must keep in mind that if this folk hero, Colonel Sartoris, had not been voted out of his command, he too would have been away in Virginia and not in home territory, "protecting" the women and children.
We do, however, admire his cleverness. When Colonel Sartoris is able to surround about sixty Yankee soldiers, capture them by a clever ruse with only a few men, make the Yankees think that they are surrounded by a large Confederate force, and make them shed their guns and clothes — these actions in "Retreat" show Sartoris to be a man of great resourcefulness, military intelligence, and dashing bravery. We also admire his cleverness in the many ways that he is able to elude the enemy. For example, the way he pretends to be old, infirm, and "born looney" to escape from the Yankee patrol, again in "Retreat," is yet another aspect of his cleverness.
Colonel Sartoris is also a man who is supremely self-assured. He exudes confidence in everything he does. The absolute and undeviating loyalty he inspires in the men he commands attests to his ability to lead with authority and respect. The fact that earlier his arrogance caused him to be demoted in his official capacity does not detract from the fact that as a commander of his own troop of irregulars, he receives extraordinary loyalty and devotion from his fellow rebels.
He is also able to inspire confidence in men in matters other than wartime tactics. At the end of the war, Sartoris is broke and destitute, yet he has a dream of building a railroad, and he is apparently able to communicate that dream to others and to convince enough of them to finance him in his dream — not just once, but over and over again — so that the railroad is built and even the first engine is bought and financed. Sartoris had no money; he had only a vision and courage and the determination to be, as Faulkner's title states, unvanquished.
Colonel Sartoris, however, is also a man of intolerance and violence; he has a short temper, and, during the war, he became accustomed to killing people who disagreed with him. We hear that he killed (the reason is never given) a "hill man" who was in his first command. As compensation, he sent the man's widow some money; interestingly, she was neither appeased nor afraid of him; she came down from the hills, flung the money in his face, spat, and left. After the war is over, to prevent blacks from voting, Sartoris kills two Missouri carpetbaggers, one an old man and the other a very young boy. Even though either the old man or the young boy shot first, we question the extreme measure of killing in order to prevent the voting. Surely, Colonel Sattoris and his troop of men, who were gathered outside the Holston Hotel (the voting place), could have removed the old man and the boy without killing them.
Of course, however, Colonel Sartoris commits the murders for reasons which he considers valid. Two outsiders, two foreigners, had crossed several states, had come south, and had invaded his county for one reason: to force upon the native population laws and customs which are alien to the territory. To Sartoris, the Missouri (originally New England) carpetbaggers are intruders; they have no right to use the desolation of the land to try and alter so suddenly and so completely the social customs and traditions of the region. Seen in this context, the actions of the colonel are justified; to his fellow southern whites, he is merely defending the rights and traditions of their region against unwarranted outside interference.
To his son Bayard, Colonel Sartoris' major flaw is his intolerance. When Bayard looks at his father's corpse laid out in the coffin, the main difference that he notes is that the "intolerance in his [closed] eyes" is missing. The other difference is the colonel's hands; the hands which had performed so many acts of violence are now lying clumsy, still, and inert. In contrast is the colonel's sister, Faulkner emphasizes that the colonel's sister has eyes that are wise and tolerant. Remember that it was partly because of the colonel's intolerance that he was voted out of his first regiment. Likewise, his intolerance does not allow an opinion different from his. Bayard, George Wyatt (the colonel's most fervent admirer), and others feel that he needles his partner, Ben Redmond, far beyond the bounds of endurance. They are amazed that Redmond is able to tolerate the colonel's insults for as long as he does. Colonel Sartoris had no intention of running for the legislature until he found out that Ben Redmond was going to run as a candidate. Then he also decided to run — simply to spite Redmond. Since Colonel Sartoris was such a popular and well known local hero, he naturally won the election by an overwhelming majority.
In spite of all his flaws, which are numerous, Colonel Sartoris finally realizes, near the end of the novel, that he has killed enough men: "Tomorrow, when I meet Ben Redmond, I shall be unarmed," he says in "An Odor of Verbena." He feels that in the past he acted as the times demanded, but now he realizes that the times have changed: the war is over; it is now a time for law and order. In fact, if the promised federal troops had arrived, it would not have been necessary for him to confront the carpetbaggers and kill them, but since they failed to arrive as promised, he felt that the times demanded that he take matters into his own hands.
Faulkner seems also to indicate that John Sartoris has no intentions of relinquishing the past or accepting a new order; rather, Colonel Sartoris has only decided to abandon violence and develop more acceptable, effective measures to appease the law while maintaining the southern privileges to which he is accustomed. Colonel Sartoris never concedes defeat; he merely concedes the need for a new strategy to preserve, among other things, racial inequality.
Furthermore, he sends his only son to the university to study law because now is the time to restore law and order to the land. Thus, in the final analysis, even though the colonel is filled with pride, arrogance, intolerance, and an obsession with power, he represents the best of the South. John Sartoris is the stalwart of the South, possessed with virtue, nobility, valor, and a deeply embedded loyal devotion to the customs of the southern culture and a deep desire to retain those long-honored traditions.