Summary and Analysis
Of all the individual stories in The Unvanquished, "Retreat" is the most diffused and the least unified; even though it is divided into only two parts, it nevertheless deals with several significant events without ever bringing them into a unified whole. In the first section, which occurs about a year after the events in "Ambuscade," Colonel Sartoris has apparently told Miss Rosa Millard to take the family's sterling silverware to Memphis. We do not witness these instructions being given; we draw this conclusion later, after the story begins, on the night before Granny, Bayard, Ringo, and Joby leave for Memphis. They are making preparations to leave early the next morning, and the trunkful of silver, which they buried a year ago, has to be dug up in spite of the fact that all of the blacks feel that it would be safer to leave it where it is and dig it up just before leaving. But Granny insists that the trunk be dug up now; she had had a dream in which a black man went to where the trunk was buried in the orchard and stood pointing at it, revealing its whereabouts. She refuses to tell the others which particular black man it was, but Bayard and Ringo know which one she means: Granny is referring to Loosh. Recall that in "Ambuscade," Granny's son-in-law, Colonel Sartoris, told Bayard in a dream "to watch Loosh, because he knows." It was not until the end of the story, however, that Faulkner revealed to us what the colonel sensed earlier. Loosh is not stupid; he listens and tries to make some sense of what is happening. It was Loosh, in "Ambuscade," who told the Sartoris slaves that the Yankees were going to free them, a fact which the majority of the blacks could not fully understand. In contrast, the idea of being freed fascinates Loosh, and Granny does not trust him for that reason. Bayard and Ringo realize this, and, therefore, they both instantly know whom Granny is referring to when Louvinia tries her best to make Granny tell which of the blacks she believes will betray the family. Clearly, Granny is referring to Loosh.
After Joby and Loosh dig up the trunk, Granny insists that they take it all the way upstairs to her bedroom, in spite of the fact that they will have to take it downstairs again in the morning and load it on the wagon.
The second section of the story, a long section, covers several different episodes. It begins the next morning after Granny, Joby, Bayard, and Ringo have finished breakfast and are preparing to leave. The trunk filled with silver is brought downstairs, loaded on the wagon, and they all set out — leaving the Sartoris plantation, stopping by the Compsons' place, and then continuing on to Jefferson, where they are stopped by Uncle Buck McCaslin. Faulkner's first digression from the plot line concerns a brief history of the McCaslin twins. He tells us about Uncle Buck and Uncle Buddy, two old bachelors in their seventies who try an experiment with their slaves: they let them work for their freedom — that is, they pay for it with their work on the plantation. We also learn in this digression that when Colonel Sartoris started to raise his first regiment, Uncle Buck and Uncle Buddy both wanted to volunteer, but since they were too old, it was decided that a game of draw poker would decide who would go. In fact, they threatened to raise their own regiment against the colonel's regiment if at least one of them could not go. Uncle Buddy won the poker game and went to fight the Yankees, and thus it is Uncle Buck who meets Bayard and Ringo on the streets of Jefferson this day, shaking his walking stick at them and, in the same breath, simultaneously damning the colonel and canonizing his efforts in the war.
After this digression, Faulkner returns to his story line and focuses again on Bayard and Ringo as they pick up Miss Rosa at the Compson place, where she stopped to get some rose cuttings to take along to Memphis. Then they set out, beginning a long journey. The days are fairly uneventful until the fourth day; then they encounter a Confederate regiment, and the officer in charge tries to convince them that they will never reach Memphis. The countryside is rampant with Yankee patrols, all of whom would be delighted to capture some kinfolk of the notorious Colonel Sartoris and hold them for ransom. However, Granny is neither frightened nor persuaded to turn back, and they continue on their way until they encounter — almost immediately — a group of Yankees. The wild, yelling soldiers pull out their pocket knives, cut the mules loose from the wagon, and ride off. Bayard and Ringo try to follow the Yankees, who are herding the captured Sartoris mules, while Granny is left sitting with Joby in the muleless wagon.
Bayard and Ringo run toward a house, "borrow" a horse, and follow the Yankees until it is dark; they fall asleep under a bridge and the next morning find themselves surrounded by horses and men. At first, they are terrified until they recognize Jupiter, Colonel Sartoris' horse, and they realize that they are surrounded by the colonel and his men.
As Colonel Sartoris is escorting the boys back to the Sartoris plantation, they suddenly ride upon an encampment of about sixty Yankees; Sartoris' innovative reaction is superb: he pretends to have a large number of troops surrounding the Yankees and yells commands to his make-believe lieutenants, demanding the surrender of the Yankees. Afterward, he takes their food and their rifles and makes them strip down to their underwear. He then pretends to relax so as to allow the prisoners to escape in small groups in their underwear. This way, the Yankees think that they have outwitted Colonel Sartoris and his "regiment"; they never realize that the colonel has only a few men with him.
As Sartoris and the boys arrive back at the Sartoris plantation, they see Granny returning on the wagon with the trunkful of silver and some "borrowed" horses; later, they bury the silverware in the same place where they had dug it up some days previously.
After finishing a day's work, Colonel Sartoris is relaxing, sitting on the front porch with his stocking feet propped up on the railing, when about fifty Yankees suddenly gallop up to the front door. The colonel sends Ringo out to the barn to saddle his horse, and he sends Bayard into the house to tell Louvinia to get his boots and pistols ready at the back door. The colonel then pretends to be old, infirm, and "born loony." He goes into the house ostensibly to get his boots, under the pretext of leading the Yankees to where Colonel Sartoris is, but he runs to the barn, jumps on his horse, and escapes before the Yankees realize what has happened.
After his escape, Granny discovers that the Yankees have set fire to the house, and, at the same moment, she also realizes that Loosh has shown the Yankees where the silver is buried. Furthermore, Loosh is now leaving the plantation, proclaiming: "I done been freed; God's own angel proclamated me free and gonter general me to Jordan. I don't belong to John Sartoris now; I belongs to me and God." When asked about the silver, Loosh maintains that he has as much right to give someone else's silver away as did that man who originally gave him to John Sartoris. Granny pleads with Loosh's wife, Philadelphy, not to go, but Philadelphy feels that she must: "He be my husband. I reckon I got to go with him." The story closes with the silver being carried away by the Yankees, the blacks fleeing, the house burning, and Miss Rosa, Bayard, and Ringo all crying out together, "The bastuds! . . . The bastuds! The bastuds!"
As was stated earlier, the reason why Granny is going to Memphis with Bayard and Ringo is never fully stated in this story and might be confusing to some readers. But as we review the story in its entirety, Faulkner explains — in digressions — that Colonel Sartoris was the first person in Yoknapatawpha County to raise a regiment of soldiers himself. From Uncle Buck McCaslin, we learn that the regiment later voted Colonel Sartoris out of command and elected another person (his name is not mentioned here, but in "An Odor of Verbena," we find out that this man is Colonel Thomas Sutpen). After he was relieved of his command, Colonel Sartoris returned to Jefferson and formed a company of irregulars. Consequently, to the enemy, Colonel Sartoris is not an official part of the Confederate Army; instead, he is something of a renegade outlaw who does not consider himself under the command of any other person. Also, we hear that there is a large reward offered for his capture. Knowing this, the colonel is aware of the importance of having all of his kinfolk removed from the country; the Yankees are moving in and they could easily take revenge upon Bayard and Miss Rosa. To prevent this, he sends them to Memphis, and they take the silver with them because Miss Rosa believes that Loosh will eventually reveal its whereabouts to the Yankees, as indeed he does at the end of the story.
In this story, we are also introduced to the McCaslin twins (to Uncle Buck, directly, and we hear indirectly about Uncle Buddy). These two characters will become major figures in one of Faulkner's later novels, Go Down, Moses. These brothers advocate a type of social philosophy which is radically humanitarian, in contrast to many of the beliefs of the South. First of all, they believe that "land did not belong to people but that people belonged to land and that the earth would permit them to live on and out of it and use it only so long as they behaved and that if they did not behave right, it would shake them off just like a dog getting rid of fleas." These ideas are further developed in Go Down, Moses. Even more radical for the time, however, is the McCaslins' system of allowing their slaves to earn their freedom by "buying it not in money . . . but in work from the plantation." Yet as contradictory as these ideas are to the rest of the citizens of the South, Uncle Buck and Uncle Buddy are, nevertheless, fiercely loyal southerners who fight for the rights of the South — even though they disagree with the prevalent concepts involved in slavery. Their independence involves a deep resentment that any other part of the nation can force its ways of thinking and acting upon the South.
The comic, tense episode during which Colonel Sartoris surrounds a large number of Yankees and makes them surrender to his handful of men shows us, firsthand, the ingenuity and the mythic greatness of Colonel Sartoris — how he won his reputation for bravery and bravura. He is clearly skilled in the ways of warfare, and he possesses the accompanying skills necessary for a successful fighter, in addition to having the determination to accomplish whatever he sets out to do.
The theme of "borrowing" is beginning to take on added significance in this story. Bayard and Ringo "borrow" the old horse that they ride on, and when Granny comes back to the Sartoris plantation, she won't answer questions about where she got the horses she is driving; she will say only that she "borrowed" them. However, when the Yankees "borrow" the Sartoris' silver, it is entirely a different matter. Yet all this "borrowing" will lead to the business of "borrowing" large numbers of mules from the Yankees in the next two stories and will culminate in Granny's violent death.
At the very end of this story, after Granny returns home with the stolen horses, Bayard and Ringo have also come home on stolen horses, yet Granny is at a loss to understand why Loosh would betray the hiding place of the Sartoris silver. When Loosh announces his freedom, Granny reminds him that the "silver belongs to John Sartoris. . . . Who are you to give it away?" It is then that Loosh answers her: "Let God ax John Sartoris who the man name that give me to him. Let the man that buried me in the black dark ax that of the man what dug me free." Once again, Faulkner illustrates the inability of the southern white to understand the black man's need for freedom or even the black man's sense of his own humanity. Granny is too completely a product of the southern society of her time to recognize any type of individual need for freedom for the black man.
As a minor point, but one that should not be missed, note that at the end of "Ambuscade" the boys had their mouths washed out with soap for saying "bastud"; now, amidst the burning of the Sartoris manor house, all three — Ringo, Bayard and Granny — say it, three times: "The bastuds! . . . The bastuds! The bastuds!"