Today in History:

The Battles of Cedar Lane in Newport News, VA

The Battles of Cedar Lane in Newport News, VA

By the first summer of the Civil War in 1861, thousands of volunteers had filled the ranks of the Confederate Army of the Peninsula and the Union Department of Virginia. Confederate Gen. John Magruder and Union Gen. Benjamin Butler were both colorful commanders who aggressively probed their enemy’s lines for any sign of weakness. Their amateur soldiers, far from home, often proved unequal to the challenge. This was underscored during two skirmishes near present-day Cedar Lane in Newport News, VA. One incident involved a doyen of New Orleans society and the other a German immigrant with aristocratic ancestry.  

On July 5, 1861, 29-year-old Lt. Col. Charles D. Dreux became the first field-grade Confederate officer killed in action. Dreux was the former district attorney for New Orleans and a member of the Louisiana State Legislature. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Dreux organized an infantry company and was elected lieutenant colonel. In May 1861, Dreux’s battalion was deployed to Virginia as part of the Army of the Peninsula. The men encamped at Young’s Mill near Great Warwick Road. Dreux drilled the young recruits and maintained strict military discipline, but he also was their friend. The Fourth of July was celebrated with a barbeque, which led to a great many speeches.

During the high-spirited gathering, Dreux learned that a Union cavalry patrol was rumored to be heading for present-day Cedar Lane. Without informing Gen. Magruder, Dreux left camp early the next morning with 100 men, a few cavalrymen, and one cannon to ambush the Federals. Before dawn, Dreux reached the Cedar Lane area, deploying his men in the woods near Great Warwick Road. In the dim light of daybreak, Dreux and his men waited anxiously as the Union cavalry neared their position. One of his men panicked after seeing a snake, which prompted Dreux and several officers to step into the road. Just as Dreux did, Union troopers fired, killing him instantly. In the dawn mêlée, both sides traded a quick volley, with neither side gaining a clear advantage.

Dreux’s body was recovered by the retreating Confederates and brought back to Young’s Mill, where it was prepared for transportation to Louisiana. Mourned throughout the South as a hero, Dreux was given an enormous funeral in New Orleans on July 16, 1861. The Governor of Louisiana, mayor of New Orleans, and more than 30,000 people attended his funeral, marching in a long column to the cemetery. A local orchestra leader and composer wrote a funeral march in memory of Dreux and sold the sheet music to benefit Dreux’s widow and child.

The second skirmish occurred one week later, on July 12, 1861, when Confederate Maj. John Bell Hood’s cavalry turned the tables on the 7th New York Volunteer Infantry. The regiment was recruited from German-born New Yorkers. On the morning of July 12, 1861, a detachment of the 7th New York advanced from Camp Butler to gather firewood. Without orders, the 7th New York pushed farther west, closer to the Confederate camps, hoping to encounter the enemy.

As they neared Cedar Lane, Maj. Hood and a detachment of Confederate cavalry discovered the Union column, hitting their flank which led to a rout. The New Yorkers fled “in a very rapid and disorganized flight” toward the river. With their enemy fleeing, Hood’s men charged again, capturing two lieutenants and 10 privates. Lt. Oscar von Heringen, an aristocrat from Germany, surrendered his sword to the Old Dominion Dragoons. The Union officer was held in a POW Camp in Salisbury, N.C., until exchanged in September 1862. Subsequently promoted to captain, Oscar von Heringen rejoined his regiment and was wounded in action at the Battle of Fredericksburg, where he died Jan. 30, 1863.