The law-makers were treated, during their session, to what was regarded, in the inexperience of those days, as a spectacle of real war. During a couple of months past large bodies of men had been gathering together, living in tents, shouldering guns, and taking the name of armies. General Butler was in command at Fortress Monroe, and was faced by Colonel Magruder, who held the peninsula between the York and the James rivers. Early in June the lieutenants of these two commanders performed the comical fiasco of the “battle” of Big Bethel. In this skirmish the Federal regiments fired into each other, and then retreated, while the Confederates withdrew; but in language of absurd extravagance the Confederate colonel reported that he had won a great victory, and Northern men flushed beneath the ridicule incurred by the blunder of their troops.
A smaller affair at Vienna was more ridiculous; several hundred soldiers, aboard a train of cars, started upon a reconnoissance, as if it had been a picnic. The Confederates fired upon them with a couple of small cannon, and they hastily took to the woods. When they got home they talked wisely about “masked batteries.” But the shrewdness and humor of the people were not thus turned aside, and the “masked battery” long made the point of many a bitter jest.
Up the river, Harper’s Ferry was held by “Stonewall” Jackson, who was soon succeeded by J.E. Johnston. Confronting and watching this force was General Patterson, at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, with a body of men rapidly growing to considerable numbers by the daily coming of recruits. Not very far away, southeastward, the main body of the Confederate army, under Beauregard, lay at Manassas, and the main body of the Federal army, under McDowell, was encamped along the Potomac. On May 23 the Northern advance crossed that river, took possession of Arlington Heights and of Alexandria, and began work upon permanent defensive intrenchments in front of the capital.
The people of the North knew nothing about war or armies. Wild with enthusiasm and excitement, they cheered the departing regiments, which, as they vaguely and eagerly fancied, were to begin fighting at once. Yet it was true that no one would stake his money on a “football team” which should go into a game trained in a time so short as that which had been allowed for bringing into condition for the manoeuvres and battlefields of a campaign an army of thirty or forty thousand men, with staff and commissariat, and arms of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, altogether constituting an organization vast, difficult, and complex in the highest degree of human cooeperation. Nevertheless “On to Richmond!” rolled up the imperious cry from every part of the North. The government, either sharing in this madness, or feeling that it must be yielded to, passed the word to the commander, and McDowell very reluctantly obeyed orders and started with his army in that direction,—not,