“Beauregard is no fool. His army is massed near the point that he is guarding—Manassas Junction. You seem to think that war is a game of chance, armies fighting just where they happen to meet each other. Not at all. Our business is to march to Richmond; Beauregard’s business is to prevent us. To do this he must, first of all, keep his lines of supply safe. An army without that is like a ship at sea without food—the more of a crew, the worse the situation. Of course, Beauregard had his skirmishers spread out in front of us, but, as there is no use in killing until some end is to be gained, they have got out of our way. If the spies that are in our ranks should send information that promised to give the rebels a chance to get at a big body of our men, before the whole army came up, you’d see a change of things very quick. We’ve got fifty thousand men, or thereabout” (Jack was wrong; there were but thirty thousand). “Now, these men are stretched back of us to Washington, fifteen miles or more, because the artillery must be guarded, and infantry only can do that. Now, suppose Beauregard finds that there is a gap somewhere between the forces stretching back, and he happens to have ten or fifteen thousand men handy? Why, he just swoops down upon us, and, if we can’t defend ourselves until the rest of the army comes up, he has won what is called a tactical victory, and endangered our strategy.”
“Goodness, Jack, you ought to have been commander-in-chief! You talk war like a book!” Barney cried, in mock admiration.
The war-talk went on late into the night, for the company, detached from camp, was not obliged to follow the signals of the bugles that came in melodious echoes over the fragrant fields. It was a thrilling sight as the lone watchers peered backward. The June fields for miles were dotted with blazing spires, as if the earth had opened to pour out columns of flame, guiding the wanderers on their trying way. The sleep of the night was desultory and fitful, excitement stimulating everybody to wakefulness.
“THE ASSYRIAN CAME DOWN LIKE THE WOLF ON THE FOLD.”
The next morning the march was resumed by daylight, the two companies remaining on the skirmish-line. The country gradually became more rugged as the route brought them near Centreville. There were no hills—a bare but not bleak champaign, mostly without houses or farms, as the North knows them. Sluggish brooks became more frequent, but none that were not easily fordable. There were no landmarks to hold the mind to the scene, nor, in case of battle, give the strategists points of vantage for the iron game. About noon, the detached groups stalking a little negligently now over the tedious plains, were startled by the unexpected.