First blood: LtCol Dreaux was early casualty

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

When the gun went off, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Dreux knew something was wrong. It was just before sunrise on July 5, 1861, and Dreux ("droo") was hiding in some bushes by a road near Newport News, Virginia. The young officer had set up an ambush to bag some Union cavalrymen who regularly passed down the road. He had instructed his men not to fire until he gave the order, but a single gunshot rang out just as the enemy approached. To see what had happened, Dreux left his hiding spot and stepped out into the dark road. A Yankee scout immediately spotted him and fired one shot.

Twenty-nine-year-old Charles D. Dreux had only been in Virginia for a couple of months. A member of New Orleans' high society, he had been educated in France, at Amherst College, and at two Kentucky military academies. Dreux was a prominent Whig Party politician and had served as the city's district attorney and as a state legislator before organizing the Orleans Cadets. His military company contained the city's most prominent young bachelors and claimed to have thirty-four men under the age of eighteen, with Dreux being the only married member. When the Civil War erupted, the Orleans Cadets became part of the 1st Battalion, Louisiana Volunteers-the first Louisiana unit to be accepted into Confederate service.

Dreux was elected the battalion's commander and led it to Virginia. On the 4th of July, he hosted a barbeque for the men and one of the officers presented him a special jug of whiskey. Soon, the colonel's blood was up, and General John B. Magruder reported Dreux made a "most exciting, stirring speech." The colonel closed his oratory by solemnly touching his sword hilt and promising his men that "this is our day, and we will have it."

Determined to meet the enemy in combat, Dreux had his ambush set up at the nearby crossroads before daylight the next day. It is still not clear who disobeyed orders and fired early. Some said a man lost his nerve and fired as soon as the enemy approached; others claimed a soldier shot at a snake. Whatever the case, Dreux walked right into a Yankee's gun sights when he stepped into the road to investigate. He died almost immediately when the bullet cut through his sword belt, shattered his pocket watch, and lodged deep in his abdomen. Scattered firing then erupted from both sides, and Private Steve Hacket of the Shreveport Greys was also killed. All of the enemy escaped unhurt.

Dreux's death sent shock waves through the South, not only because of his high social position but also because he was the first Confederate officer to be killed in the war. The members of Dreux's battalion were so outraged that they demanded satisfaction from the Yankees. General Magruder reported the unit contacted the enemy and proposed that they pick five hundred of their best men to meet on any field of their choosing so revenge could be extracted. To the Louisianians disappointment, their challenge was declined.

Dreux's and Hacket's bodies were shipped home, accompanied by an honor guard of soldiers. A huge crowd met the train in New Orleans and silently watched as the colonel's coffin was unloaded and escorted by militiamen to City Hall. There his body lay in state for several days and was viewed by thousands of mourners.

Dreux's funeral procession still stands as one of the largest ever held in New Orleans. Buildings along the route were draped in mourning, flags flew at half-mast, and scores of church bells solemnly tolled every minute during the ninety-minute procession. Two hundred carriages carrying such dignitaries as Governor Thomas Moore and Mayor John Monroe followed the casket, while another ten thousand mourners walked along behind. The funeral procession was viewed by an estimated sixty thousand people and was attended by forty Catholic priests.

Dreux and Hacket were the first Louisianians to die in battle, and they were hailed as martyrs. Their families were fortunate to have been able to give them a decent burial for countless Louisiana dead would come to be laid in unmarked graves or mass pits. What few people outside the battalion knew was that the two men's deaths may have been avoidable. In a letter home, battalion member Eugene Janin cryptically wrote that "a 4th of July barbeque & a jug of whiskey . . . had more to do with it than we like to have known out of the battalion."

Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published six books on the American Civil War.