The title of this story means "to lie in wait in the woods" or "to ambush"; by old chivalric codes of honor, then, the title carries a negative connotation because in olden times no real soldier would stoop so low as to ambush his enemy. In the title of the first story of this collection, Faulkner is warning the reader that the entire series of stories might be an ambush on the values embedded in southern society. There is nothing noble, for example, about lying in ambush to kill a Yankee who is trying to free members of the human race held in enslavement.
The novel, and particularly this first story, begins with a simple plot, but this seemingly simple plot disguises the larger meanings of the novel. Had Faulkner intended the story to be truly a simple one, he would have named it simply "Ambush," but by using a more archaic form of the word, he is calling attention to the fact that the entire American Civil War was fought because of archaic issues — that is, what society can survive as a society when it fights so heroically for the enslavement of another race of people? Should we praise the heroism of the battle, or should we examine the underlying principles governing the war?
As a framework for these deep, philosophical concerns, Faulkner uses a multitude of plain, homespun, over-simple pleasures and actions, and he lulls us into believing that the Civil War was filled with fun and games. Significantly, he never removes the reader from this romantic view in the first story; he narrates it in terms of its being a marvelous story of war and adventure, seen through the eyes of a young twelve-year-old boy. Deceptively, Faulkner is deemphasizing the serious aspects of the war — the deaths, the destruction, the privations, and so forth — by revealing its romantic aspects. With this method, Faulkner evokes myths about the whole concept of war, myths that began with Homer's Iliad, when Achilles sulked childishly in his tent and refused to play the game of war for quite some time. In fact, the entire Iliad is interspersed with games of war and games of athletic prowess.
To open the novel, Faulkner uses an ironic situation: he presents the narrator, Bayard Sartoris, playing a game of war with Ringo, a black slave boy who is the same age as Bayard. The actual war is far away from them and, in historical fact, Vicksburg has already fallen, as we learn later from Loosh, Ringo's uncle. This is Faulkner's way of indicating that the Civil War is not just beginning; it is at a critical moment for the South. Here, Bayard and Ringo are in the process of reconstructing the battle by using a "handful of chips" from the woodpile to represent Vicksburg and a "trench scraped into the packed earth" for the Mississippi River. However, the river, through Faulkner's narrative, becomes more than just a trench; it lives, "possessing even in miniature that ponderable though passive recalcitrance of topography which outweighs artillery, against which the most brilliant of victories and the most tragic of defeats are but the loud noises of a moment." The miniature Vicksburg is merely part of a game which the boys are playing, but the entirety of this first story focuses on games, the games that the young boys constantly play. These games, however, change drastically during the course of the novel, and thus the entire novel should be seen as a record of the growth and maturation of a young twelve-year-old boy. We witness his coming of age — as he relishes the make-believe violence of the childish games he plays in the first story, to his recognition of the need to hunt and kill and avenge his grandmother's death, and, finally, his rejection of violence in favor of law and order in the final story.
The first section of "Ambuscade," then, presents the games that Bayard and Ringo play; the two boys are involved in their war games when Loosh suddenly brings an element of reality into the game. With one sweep of his hand, Loosh destroys the entire Vicksburg "play-enforcement." Here, an alien element is introduced; just prior to Loosh's appearance, Bayard and Ringo were pretending that they were fighting "against a common enemy." With Loosh's action, we realize that the enemy is not so easy to determine for a black person since the war is concerned with the liberation of the blacks. It is, however, important to note that throughout these stories, Ringo, as a black, has adopted the values of the southern white code and will constantly be found siding with the Sartoris point of view, even until the last story, when he too feels the need to avenge the death of Colonel John Sartoris.
After Loosh leaves, hinting that he knows something about the war that the young boys do not know, Bayard and Ringo continue playing their war games, with Ringo playing a southern general, General Pemberton, and Bayard having to take his turn playing a northern general, General Grant. They have to take turns "even though Ringo was a nigger . . . because Ringo and I had been born in the same month and had both fed at the same breast and had slept together and eaten together for so long that Ringo called Granny 'Granny' just like I did."
In the midst of their games, Bayard's father, Colonel Sartoris, rides up. After greeting the two boys and sending his horse off to be curried, Bayard notes that his father "was not big; 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." Here, Faulkner's purpose is especially clear: the first part of "Ambuscade" combines the play of the war games with Loosh introducing a hint of the real war, and, finally, the real war is brought into focus with the return of Colonel Sartoris.
In Part 2 of "Ambuscade," Bayard tells us that Colonel Sartoris, with the help of Joby, Loosh, Ringo, and himself, is building a stock pen in the swamp so cleverly that no one will be able to find it. He also tells us that when the colonel takes off his coat, he is surprised to see that he is wearing a pair of Yankee trousers which he took from a captured Yankee. He then continues his narrative: after they have completed building the stock pen, they return to the house and discover one of the big trunks from the attic sitting in the kitchen; they also discover that the table is set with kitchen knives and forks — the silver service is missing. After supper, the boys anxiously wait to hear stories about the war; the colonel is a good storyteller, and they anticipate hearing him tell about the cannon fire and flags waving and wild yelling, like he did two years ago, but the boys are sent to bed instead. They don't go all the way upstairs, however; they sit for a while on the stairs and listen to the colonel give instructions to Loosh to get shovels and lanterns and to meet him later. Ringo is sure that they are going to bury the silver. When the boys awaken the next morning, both the trunk filled with the silver service and the colonel are gone.
This section focuses on the war's advancing closer to the boys' home. Yet neither one of them is fully aware of this fact. Two years ago, the colonel had time to sit around and tell stories about the war to amuse the boys. Now he has no time for this. The front lines of the war are too close to home; there is no longer time for telling amusing stories and there are no amusing stories. The fall of Vicksburg and the impending arrival of the enemy upon the actual soil of the Sartoris plantation are imminent. In fact, the Yankees are so close that it is necessary to hide the stock in the swamp and to bury the silverware. But in the midst of all this, there is still an element of mystery and fun for the boys. The grim actuality of war itself is still far away.
This section also tells us more about Colonel Sartoris. He is not a stereotypical southern colonel — formal, distant, and reserved; instead, he is willing to remove his jacket and participate, alongside the black slaves, in the physical work of building the stock pen. And while the colonel can suddenly and mysteriously appear out of the woods, he can also suddenly disappear. Yet his character is firmly grounded in reality, particularly as we noted in the scene where he works and sweats along with the others to build the stock pen. Also in this section, we hear about the colonel's library, a room which tells us a good deal about its owner. In the colonel's library, there is a combination of intellectual books dealing with law and theories of law and justice, alongside the novels of Sir Walter Scott (dealing with romantic chivalry), as well as those of James Fennimore Cooper and Alexander Dumas, both writers of romantic fiction.
Part 3 of "Ambuscade" opens the day after the colonel has left. Granny is telling Ringo to get the cookbook for her to read from because Ringo has asked her to read about "Cokynut cake"; Ringo is curious about coconut cake because he is not sure whether or not he has actually tasted it. Later, Bayard wants to secretly watch Loosh because in a dream he was told that Loosh knows things — ". . . that he [Loosh] would know before we did . . . [and] if we watched him, we could tell by what he did when it was getting ready to happen." Bayard and Ringo watch Loosh, and one night he leaves and does not return until later the next night. Then he announces to the other slaves that they are going to be set free. The other slaves do not believe him, but Ringo and Bayard do, and they decide that they should start watching the road for any approaching Yankees. After two days, they spot a Yankee on horseback, and they return to the manor house and take down an old musket from over the fireplace. Then they return to where they saw the Yankee. With great difficulty, they work together and manage to fire the old musket and discover that it is not a single soldier coming around the curve in the road: it is "the whole army!"
In this section, Faulkner presents the central action of the story — the ambush of the Yankee soldier. First, he continues his lighthearted tone as he describes Granny reading about "Cokynut cake," but simultaneously we realize that there is a serious dimension even in this comic episode: the war has stopped all possibility of the Sartoris family having access to such a thing as coconut. The narrative then focuses on the fact that Loosh does indeed know things that the others do not know. Yet Loosh's report that the Yankees are coming to free the slaves does not have any true social significance for the two boys; instead, Loosh's news is merely the reason why they start watching the road for Yankees to actually start arriving. Ironically, Bayard even assumes that if Ringo is freed, then he too will be freed. Later he asks Ringo, "Do you want to be free?" We realize at this point that neither Bayard nor Ringo has any real concept of why the war is being fought. Their actual firing on the Yankee, however, takes the action away from the element of play and games and brings the reality of war into the boys' immediate situation.
Section 4 continues the narrative as the young boys flee to Granny for protection after they shoot at the Yankee. Granny, fearing that they have actually killed a man and seeing Yankee soldiers approaching the house, hides the two boys under her billowing skirts. When the Yankee sergeant demands to know where the two boys are, Granny tells a lie — for her, a grave sin. "There are," she says, "no children in this house nor on this place. There is no one here at all except my servant and myself and the people in the quarters." The sergeant sends some of his men to search the house, and Granny questions him about the man who was killed; she is greatly relieved to discover that it was only a horse and not a man, even a Yankee, that was killed. A Yankee colonel enters the house, learns of the situation, and is instantly aware that Granny has hidden the two boys under her skirts, yet he refuses to confront the lady with the truth. He has the sergeant call off his men and, after a bit more conversation (during which he makes it clear that he knows Granny is lying), he and his men leave. Granny rises from her chair, kneels down to pray for forgiveness for having lied, and then sends the boys to the kitchen for soap since they used a curse word earlier.
Section 5 closes the story with Bayard's recollection of having his mouth washed out with soap. He remembers spitting out soap bubbles and their disappearing, a metaphor for the disappearance of many other things in the past. Obviously, however, Bayard has never forgotten Granny nor her unique sense of morality. In this particular story, she utters her first lie; later, as the novel continues, she will gradually become enmeshed in a tissue of lies and deception which will cause her death. Here, as later, her lie is practical — its purpose is to protect her grandchild and his black playmate; all her lies will be practical, but they will result, nonetheless, in her death.
Granny's code of southern ethics is one that values honor and integrity, and she trusts others to believe in the same things — even the Yankees. If they happen to be gentlemen, they are to be trusted as gentlemen. The code of the South is one which allows Granny to believe that her cause (the southern cause) is correct, and that God is, of course, on her side. As a result, she is sorry that she lied, but she did so in order to protect the boys and also to uphold the principle of slavery; such things can ultimately be forgiven. But she firmly adheres to that part of the southern code which does not allow young children to use obscenity; consequently, she washes out her grandson's mouth with soap as a punishment for swearing.
The Yankee colonel is never identified in this particular story, but later we will discover that he is Colonel Dick, and Granny will go to find him in order to retrieve the Sartoris silverware and mules. Later, this seemingly trivial encounter with a stranger, albeit a Yankee "gentleman" colonel, will be a factor in the circumstances of Granny's death. As Ringo will comment later, "It was those first mules that caused her death."
"Ambuscade," as we have noted, will seem on first reading to be a simple story; indeed, it will seem to be the simplest story in the novel. In one sense it is, but at the same time it is also one of the most unified stories in the collection — that is, it deals with one single episode, and its characters, its actions, and its mood are all pivotal to the entire novel.