The Civil War is more than a setting for the novel. It is an active presence, influencing the characters' values and actions as well as the plot. The battlefield is never depicted directly, but we can see the influence of the fighting in the characters' diminishing economic fortunes, in the devastation visited on the countryside and in the lasting defiance of civilians. But despite this appearance of realism, this is not a realistic depiction of what was an unimaginably gruesome and violent war. Instead it is primarily shown as a collection of heroic exploits by Colonel Sartoris and his men, who harass the Yankees but escape without punishment. At the same time, the war calls into question the received system of Southern values; since society's traditional means of enforcing order are gone, petty interlopers like Grumby and Ab Snopes can flourish. Bayard and the other characters are responsible for ensuring that the Southern system does not vanish as a result of the trauma enveloping society. The war thus creates the crises that test Bayard and allow him to develop into an adult.
The comic passages in the novel initially contribute to the atmosphere of idyllic childhood that Bayard enjoys in the first few chapters. War is nothing more than fun and adventure for him, and the humorous tone of his scrapes is reassuring, promising that nothing will go too seriously wrong. Even seeming hardships like the burning of the house do not seriously interrupt this mood of security. Only the climax of the novel dislodges the protections of childhood, and with them the gentle humor of the early chapters. Bayard's avenging of Granny and later of Colonel Sartoris are completely humorless; even the farce of "Skirmish at Sartoris" is laced with bitterness—a knowing, ironic humor rather than the winking comedy of "Ambuscade."