Summary and Analysis "Skirmish at Sartoris"


In terms of the entire novel, this story concerns itself with the rapid social changes that took place in the South immediately following the American Civil War. Bayard is still the narrator of the story, but here he is not the focus of the story's actions; he is more of an outside observer. Likewise, Ringo, who has figured prominently in all the stories, has virtually no role in this story. In "Skirmish," the main conflict has a double focus, each of almost equal importance. The title suggests that there is only one skirmish, but there are two skirmishes — first, the political skirmish involving the Missouri carpetbaggers' attempts to insure that the blacks of Jefferson exercise their right to vote for Marshal. The more important skirmish, however, involves Aunt Louisa's attempts to get John Sartoris and Drusilla Hawk married. This last "skirmish" seems as though it was a comical (superficial or tongue-in-cheek) sub-plot, but in reality, the basis of any civilization depends upon strict adherence to certain social norms; marriage and the family are the basis of civilization, and any threat to that social unit is most serious. Yet Faulkner treats the carpetbagger theme far more seriously, and he treats the marriage theme in a much lighter, more humorous manner. In fact, the subject of the right to vote is treated with, literally, dead seriousness. The right for some people to vote and the denial of that right for other people is a perversion of justice, and it is this theme which more seriously undermines and destroys the primary concepts of society, upon which the first theme elaborates. In other words, if in the process of restricting voting rights we destroy the basic foundation (the family) of society, there would be no need to vote for anything.

The structure of southern civilization has been almost totally destroyed; its houses and mansions have been burned (see "Retreat" and "Raid"), its railroads destroyed (see "Retreat"), its economy destroyed, its women and children murdered or homeless, its morale shattered, and its political, social, and philosophical premises are now being put to their most severe test: will the surviving southern gentry, who fought to preserve a system built on slavery, allow the northern carpetbaggers to organize the blacks and make them exercise their newly decreed right to vote as free citizens? Democracy hinges upon the right of all its citizens to participate in the electoral process; in the Civil War just ended, the North fought to uphold these principles. Yet here, even after the war is over, the skirmish continues, albeit on a smaller scale: will the blacks — now free and recognized as citizens — still be denied their rights? Consequently, the story asks what is more important — the right to vote or the reestablishment of a normal society based upon the family as the basic unit of that society? For example, how important is the right to vote when the family as a unit no longer exists? Seen in this context, Faulkner's comic theme, treated humorously, seriously concerns the very basis of any civilized society. Both the right of adults to marry whomever they choose and the right of adults to vote for whomever they choose should be inalienable rights of any society; yet in this story, set in a devastated, almost destroyed society, both inalienable rights are perverted.

In terms of Faulkner's structure, the story has three basic divisions, each one emphasizing both themes ("skirmishes"). The opening sentence presents the basic confrontation both between the matter of the marriage and the matter of the voting: "When I think of that day, of Father's old troop on their horses drawn up facing the house, and Father and Drusilla on the ground with the carpetbagger voting box in front of them, and opposite them the women — Aunt Louisa, Mrs. Habersham and all the others — on the porch and the two sets of them, the men and the women, facing one another like they were both waiting for a bugle to sound the charge, I think I know the reason." After this long opening sentence, one is inclined to think that the "skirmish" of the title is going to be between the men and the women squared off and facing one another. But this is Faulkner's way of creating suspense and interest, and he is successful. After we have witnessed the unity of the men and the women in the previous stories, this sentence is startling. Faulkner needed this ploy; "Vendée" realized and resolved a major crisis. Now Faulkner must continue his novel, and he needs a sufficient "hook" to keep his readers reading about the aftermath of the war. We keep reading, watching him use this first sentence to enlarge his ideas and create three sections in this story which combine both of his themes. In this sense, "Skirmish" is as unified a story as "Ambuscade" or "Vendée."

In this particular story, however, the function of the narrator, as opposed to the role of the narrator, changes. Here, Bayard is treated by the adults as being very immature and in need of moral protection — a view that is certainly not warranted after all he has done, dealt with, and had to make decisions about. In each of the earlier stories, Bayard worked alongside older men, and in "Vendée," he performed an act of revenge requiring fortitude and endurance far beyond the capabilities of most fifteen-year-old boys; we realized that he was no longer a mere boy. Likewise, as narrator of this particular story, Bayard demonstrates mature insights into social situations that far exceed his chronological fifteen years. Yet one of the concerns of the "ladies" in this story is that Drusilla's and John Sartoris' not marrying might have a corruptive influence on this fifteen-year-old. Ironically, Bayard remains largely unaffected, serving as Faulkner's uninvolved narrator, one who reports only the action of the story.

In this first section, it is suggested that (according to the women) since the men "had given in and admitted that they belonged to the United States," they proved that they lacked a solid moral code; they might do anything now. Their admitting that they belong once more to the United States might prelude any kind of immoral, unnatural behavior. In contrast to the men of the South, "the women had never surrendered." To them, marriage was important and it still is important. As soldiers of a sort together, Drusilla and John rode together, fought together, and the ladies assume, probably had sex together; thus they must be married.

Drusilla, remember, asked Bayard in "Raid" to ask Bayard's father if she could ride with Colonel Sartoris' troops. Now, we read that she did, in fact, accomplish that goal; she has been fighting with John's troops for almost a year; and, of course, at the end of "Vendée" Faulkner included a short scene in which she and John returned to the ruins of the Sartoris plantation.

Bayard and Ringo are still fifteen, as we noted, when this story begins. A letter from Hawkhurst, Alabama, arrives and reminds Bayard of that night long ago (actually only eighteen months ago) when Drusilla first expressed her wish to join Colonel Sartoris' troops. But Bayard forgot to mention it to his father; yet, Drusilla was so determined that she found Colonel Sartoris himself and rode with him and his troops anyway. To Aunt Louisa, Drusilla deliberately tried to "unsex herself" because Drusilla refused to show any grief over the death of her father or her fiancé (Gavin Breckbridge) in the traditional way — that is, weeping and wailing and wearing black. Instead, Drusilla saddled up and rode off to the front lines and confronted and fought the Yankees who killed her men folks.

Then another letter arrives, addressed to Miss Rosa (Granny), beginning "Dear Sister." Granny, of course, is now dead, but it is the contents which are of central concern here. In the letter, Aunt Louisa is obviously grieved that Drusilla's father died trying to protect the sanctity of southern womanhood, an ideal which Drusilla is now flagrantly violating. In the letter, Aunt Louisa laments to her sister about Mr. Hawk, who "laid down his life to protect a heritage of . . . spotless women." Aunt Louisa is not content with mere letter writing; however; she activates her "army" — the women of Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha County — who mean to see to it that a marriage takes place between Colonel Sartoris and Drusilla, who "had been reserved for . . . the highest destiny of a Southern women — to be the bride-widow of a lost cause" has now become a "lost woman and a shame" because not only did Drusilla ride with Sartoris' men, she bivouacked with them, whacked off her hair, and, most dreadful of all, wore a man's uniform-and not just a man's uniform, but that of "a common private soldier."

Drusilla strongly opposes and rejects these traditional southern views about womanhood and about herself. When Aunt Louisa insists that her daughter and John get married, Drusilla explains, "Can't you understand that I am tired of burying husbands in this war? That I am riding in Cousin John's troop not to find a man but to hurt Yankees?"

In section two, it is spring; the war is over, Faulkner reminds us again, and Drusilla has once again donned men's clothes, and she is working out in the fields, just like another man. Ringo, who previously shared a pallet with Bayard in one of the former slave quarters, has moved to the cabin where Joby and Louvinia live, and now Bayard and Colonel Sartoris sleep on a pallet in the cabin, and Drusilla sleeps in a bed behind a quilt that has been tacked up to divide the cabin into two sleeping quarters. That spring, Mrs. Compson, who does not even know Aunt Louisa Hawk, receives a letter, addressed to her this time, from Aunt Louisa, emphasizing the fact that "the good name of one family was the good name of all." This key comment brings us back to the main theme — that is, in a period of flux, change, and reconstruction, the survival of the institution of marriage and the family is essential to the survival of society as a whole. With this theme in mind, remember that despite the reason for the war itself, and despite the fact that the war is over, the whites still separate themselves from the blacks at the Sartoris plantation. For example, Ringo no longer sleeps with Bayard, as he did for fifteen years; instead, Ringo is now sent to sleep with Joby and Louvinia. This suggests the beginning of serious segregation once again, and here the balloting for Marshal of Jefferson is a matter which will become the climax of the social theme.

The "skirmish" at Sartoris, referred to in the title, begins when Mrs. Habersham, who does not even know Drusilla, brings a number of ladies out from town to the Sartoris plantation to see for themselves what is going on. There is a total of fourteen women, and their main concern is to determine the exact nature of the sleeping arrangements. Bayard tells us, "It was Mrs. Habersham who was holding back the quilt for the others to go in and look at the bed where Drusilla slept and then showing them the pallet where Father and I slept." Bayard overhears the gossip of the ladies, but he ignores it, especially when the ladies keep obsequiously referring to Bayard as "you poor child." We must remember that Bayard, in the last story ("Vendée"), performed a murder and nailed a man's corpse to a door — more than enough for him to be classified as an adult — and certainly not as a "poor child," even though this story does repeatedly emphasize that he is only fifteen years old. (Actually, in terms of the entire novel, Bayard is presented fictionally as younger and more immature in this story than in the last, but originally, each of these stories — except "An Odor of Verbena" — was published separately in magazines.)

When the fourteen ladies approach Drusilla about her "condition," as they call it, she doesn't understand what they mean at first. When it finally becomes clear what the ladies are implying — that she is living at the Sartoris house to sleep with John Sartoris, or is now sleeping with him, or else intends to compromise him into a position where he will be forced to marry her — Drusilla is both horrified and distraught. She immediately asks the colonel, "'John, John. . . . Is that what you think too?' she said. Then she was gone." To Louvinia, who holds Drusilla comfortingly, Drusilla sobs that she and John "went to the war to hurt Yankees, not hunting women!" In this statement, she ironically forgets that she is a woman; Drusilla's whole frame of mind — her comments about the war, on rebuilding and reconstruction, and on voting rights — is as "man-like" as are all of her previous actions. To Drusilla, what she has done is innocent and morally right; to the other southern women, however, her actions have been and continue to be perverted and unnatural.

But those were strange times. Even Bayard is perplexed. For four years, they fought to get the Yankees out of the South; now, suddenly, even the most stalwart of the southern men, Colonel Sartoris himself, is counting on President Lincoln to keep his promise and "send us troops." His trust is now with a man from the North who promises to send out troops to keep out the carpetbaggers and restore order to the South. Once more, Faulkner's two themes merge again and here, on the Sartoris porch, we realize that the social order cannot be restored until Drusilla and John are married.

Ironically, the cause of the major political dissent is announced by a black male, by Ringo. Another black male, Cassius Q. Benbow — if the carpetbaggers are successful — is going to be elected Marshal of Jefferson. Two carpetbaggers from Missouri, named Burden, are organizing the blacks into a single voting bloc. (For a full and complete history of the Burden family, one should read Faulkner's novel Light in August, in which Joanna Burden tells her view of Colonel Sartoris' murdering of her half-brother and her grandfather and how her own father retrieved the dead bodies and buried them in a hidden grave for fear that other racists might find them and desecrate the graves and the bodies.)

During these times, Colonel Sartoris is seldom at the Sartoris mansion; he and the other white men are busy rebuilding Jefferson. He is gone, for example, when Aunt Louisa arrives one day bringing trunks filled with Drusilla's dresses. The trunks contain "dresses in them that she hadn't worn in three years; Ringo never had seen her in a dress until Aunt Louisa came." (This last statement isn't actually true in terms of the entire novel; in "Raid," Ringo saw Drusilla in a dress when they were in Alabama.) This minor error on Faulkner's part is unimportant, however, in terms of the impact of Aunt Louisa's arriving with the trunks of dresses. Faulkner has Bayard say, concerning the dresses and the trunks, "Drusilla was beaten, like as soon as she let them put the dress on her she was whipped; like in the dress she could neither fight back nor run away." According to Bayard, "that's what beat Drusilla: the trunks."

Drusilla does make an attempt to convince her mother that nothing immoral occurred between her and John while they were fighting the Yankees, but Aunt Louisa will not listen, and she confronts John Sartoris directly: "Colonel Sartoris . . . I am a woman; I must request what the husband whom I have lost and the man son which I have not would demand, perhaps at the point of a pistol. — Will you marry my daughter?" Colonel Sartoris, a defeated man who has had to cope with the loss of the South, understands: to Drusilla, he says simply, "They have beat you, Drusilla." Thus the restoration of the social order is initiated.

In the background of this episode, however, looms the other theme of the story: the election of the Marshal of Jefferson. Earlier, Colonel Sartoris told the carpetbagger Burdens that the election would never be held with "Cash Benbow or any other nigger in it." Stubbornly, because they have legal authority and power and ideals, the Burdens decide to defy Colonel Sartoris and hold the election anyway.

Section three juxtaposes the two skirmishes. Aunt Louisa, totally unaware of the election, sets the date for the wedding day to be on the very day that the Marshal of Jefferson will be decided — a day when all of the men in the county would be riding to town to vote. Aunt Louisa and Mrs. Habersham, after first deciding on a big wedding for John and Drusilla, then realize that it would not be proper; so they compromise on a small, civil wedding and a big reception afterward, after Drusilla quietly meets Colonel Sartoris in town for the ceremony. On the scheduled day, people begin arriving with baskets of food and drink, and everything is prepared for the reception when Ringo and Denny suddenly ride up with the news that Drusilla and John have killed the two Burdens. Aunt Louisa's first, horrified response is not about the murders, but that Drusilla is still unmarried: "Do you mean to tell me that Drusilla and that man are not married yet?" she asks. Her first concern is not about the murder, nor even about who did it, nor even about the guilt and the implications and the possible punishment or imprisonment. Instead, Louisa's concern is only that the old social order of the South has not yet been restored: John ("that man" she calls him) and Drusilla are not yet married.

From a fictional point of view, some readers might be interested in noting that the above scene, while narrated by Bayard, is the only scene in the novel where he is not actually present. His narration relies upon Ringo and Denny's later narration of the events to him. Yet this is not as important in Faulkner's technique as is his next device. Typical of his narrative techniques in this novel, after announcing the deaths of the two Burdens, he goes back in time and narrates the events leading up to the murder. Colonel Sartoris arrived in town and saw that the voting was about to begin at the hotel. He immediately entered the hotel, followed by Drusilla, who broke through a line of men to join him. Bayard also tries to break through, but he is held back. Then they hear three shots from inside the hotel. The last two are from Colonel Sartoris' derringer. Drusilla emerges first, carrying the ballot box, the "wedding wreath on one side of her head and the veil twisted about her arm." Then Colonel Sartoris comes out, and he reminds everyone that the Burdens fired first. He appoints Drusilla Hawk as voting commissioner and announces that he will go to the sheriff and make bond because "we are working for peace through law and order." This is yet another instance of the double standard that has informed so many of the stories in this novel. Colonel Sartoris is indeed working for law and order, but it is a law and order based on "the old social order" of the South. His law and order involves retaining the principles under which he has always functioned and believed in and fought for. From his point of view, his land, his heritage, and his way of life — all these are sacred. For two uninvited foreigners from Missouri, two carpetbaggers, to come into Jefferson and invade the town and intrude upon a homogenized land and attempt to force, coerce, and ramrod down the throats of the people an idea and a concept that is a complete anathema to the country-this is a complete violation of the integrity of the land and its people. The land and the customs of Jefferson and of the South are still sacred, even though the war is over, and if law and order are to be the rule of the day, such violations as the Burdens advocated have to be forcibly resisted. There will be no foreign intrusion upon the sanctity of an honored homeland, especially when that land is gasping for its very existence.

The two major themes of the novel are once again united by having the ballot box being borne by Drusilla. As Colonel Sartoris says, "I reckon women don't ever surrender: not only victory, but not even defeat." Aunt Louisa, for example, is not at all concerned with the invasion of the carpetbaggers or with the voting rights of blacks; on the contrary, she deprecates the entire matter and asks of the men accompanying Drusilla: "And who are they, pray? Your groomsmen of murder and robbery?" To her, the episode in town was devoid of meaning, a diversion by a man and by a woman who acts like a man. She then snatches up the polling box and throws it away. This dramatic gesture underlines an essential element of the story — that is, marriage is an honorable institution; murdering people to keep them from voting is not nearly as honorable — at least to Louisa and to the other women gathered on the porch.

Aunt Louisa wants to send immediately for the minister, but Drusilla holds out one minute longer in order to conduct the election. Earlier, the intended wedding turned into a travesty; here, the voting is certainly a travesty. One person, George Wyatt, writes out all the votes and it is announced that the outcome is unanimous: everyone voted against Benbow. As the men start the ride back to town, there is a shout of approval: "Yaaaaay, Drusilla. . . . Yaaaaaay, John Sartoris."

In conclusion, the important skirmish of this story (the marriage of John and Drusilla) ends in defeat; the other, the skirmish involving the murder of the Burdens, and the capture of the ballot box, ends in success. Also, whereas earlier Ringo played a role as important as any white character or sometimes even more important, here, in this story dealing with the denial of voting rights to blacks as its focal point, Ringo is virtually missing from all of the events that take place.