Eri D. Woodbury was born on May 30, 1837, to Henry Woodbury and Hannah Davidson Woodbury, at Francetown, New Hampshire. He would enlist in the 1st Vermont Cavalry, on December 14, 1863, as a private in Company E. Woodbury was a graduate of Dartmouth College and would quickly learn the ropes of a cavalry trooper, “….(while) riding his horse to water, with only a halter, (when) he ran off: but I rode as far as he ran.” The next day he wrote, “In mounting a horse for water today, while a couple of officers were looking on, I sprang and land(ed) clear of the other side in the mud.”(i) Obviously Woodbury would learn to ride better as he had many cavalry engagements awaiting him!
On May 5, 1864, during the opening phases of the Battle of the Wilderness, Woodbury would see action at Craig’s Meeting House where he was sent forward, on foot, as a skirmisher. Woodbury would describe the action, “I had taken a position behind a rail fence when one of Co. came up on my right and I moved about a foot and a half to the left, he taking my place. In a half a minute a ball hit him in the temple – and without a groan he was ‘mustered out.’ His warm blood formed a little pool in which my knees were steeped.”(ii) Woodbury would survive the skirmish at Craig’s Meeting House unscathed.
During the Overland Campaign, Woodbury, and the 1st Vermont Cavalry, would participate in several significant engagements: Yellow Tavern, Meadow Bridge, and Hawe’s Shop. After the Army of the Potomac crossed the James River, the 1st Vermont would participate in many raids south of Petersburg, most notably the Wilson-Kautz Raid. This raid’s objective was to tear up track on three railroads: Richmond and Danville, Weldon and Southside. Additionally, two important bridges were to be destroyed: High Bridge on the Southside and Roanoke on the Richmond and Danville. After tearing up 60 miles of track the troopers reached High Bridge on June 25. This bridge was heavily guarded and significant action took place in trying to push the Rebels from the bridge. The 1st Vermont, while not directly involved in the fighting at High Bridge, were assigned rear guard duty – a very important assignment with Fitzhugh Lee’s Confederate Cavalry prowling in their rear. During the evening, Wilson and Kautz determined that it was impracticable to remain in the area and made plans to reunite with the Army of the Potomac at Petersburg. Their route would take them in a roughly northeasterly direction, swinging in somewhat of an arc. For two and a half days, their return march proved uneventful. This would change as the approached Stoney Creek. There at Sappony Church was CSA Major General Wade Hampton’s cavalry division, many dismounted, blocking their route to the Federal lines at Petersburg. Over the next couple of hours the 1st Vermont would work to throw up modest works. Woodbury was assigned a front position from which he would kneel, directing his fire at the Confederate position. While not well liked by most troopers, this position did offer them some protection from the Confederate musketry. As Woodbury describes, “…many a time during that night the balls struck in this frail defense or in the dirt so near it as to sprinkle us with sand.”(iii) The fight at Stoney Creek would continue throughout the night. With first light, Wilson quickly determined to pursue a different route. Pulling Kautz’s command out of line, he ordered them north towards Ream’s Station. By mid-morning Wilson ordered the rest of his troopers to pull out of line and head for Ream’s Station. The 1st Vermont, 3d Indiana and 8th New York were given the unenviable job of fighting a delaying action against a much larger Confederate force. This would require the troopers to march a distance, dismount and fight the enemy, re-mount when the pressure became too severe, ride a distance and repeat the whole process – all the while under enemy fire. Eventually, during this delaying action, over 60 Vermonters would be captured, many of which would end up at the dreaded Andersonville Prison. Finding portions of Fitzhugh Lee and Hampton’s cavalry, along with a division of Confederate infantry, at Ream’s Station, Kautz and Wilson changed plans and would make their escape to the west – a direction the Confederates would not expect – before turning around and heading further south and then pushing east to the Weldon where their route would be open. While Wilson was setting his plans in motion, Kautz was able to make his escape, with portions of Wilson’s command, and would arrive at the Federal camps on June 29. Wilson’s much longer route would prevent him from arriving at Petersburg until July 2. The cost of the Wilson-Kautz Raid was high with the Federal cavalry suffering over 900 casualties. It was another sad chapter in the close knit 1st Vermont which would suffer 90 casualties. Having left with 370+ men, the Green Mountain Boys would suffer a casualty rate nearly 25%, quite high for a mounted arm.(iv)
Over the next three weeks the 1st Vermont would receive some much needed rest. They would camp on some high ground near the James River, enjoying much needed provisions. In August, with CSA Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s 2d Corps Army of Northern Virginia (the 2d Corps would be designated the Army of the Valley) on the prowl in the Shenandoah Valley and Maryland, things began to change quickly in Army of the Potomac’s camps. With the Lincoln administration fearing a raid on Washington City, Grant detached portions of his army (two divisions of cavalry, VI Army Corps and XIX Army Corps) to Harper’s Ferry. Once there they would combine with the VIII Corps and form the Middle Department with US Major General Philip Sheridan in command of the combined forces. Sheridan wasted no time and pushed his army into the Shenandoah Valley to confront Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley. Finding Early’s forces spread out, near Winchester, Sheridan would attack them on September 19. At what would be known as the Battle of Third Winchester (or Battle of Opequon), Sheridan would roughly handle Early sending him retreating up the valley. The 1st Vermont Cavalry had little involvement in this battle.
Next Sheridan’s army would find Early’s army holding high ground at Fisher’s Hill. Executing a wonderfully designed plan, Sheridan was able to rout Early from the hill on September 21–22. While the fight was going on at Fisher’s Hill, US Brigadier General Alfred Torbert was in command of a cavalry detachment sent towards Front Royal to block the Valley Turnpike sealing Early’s escape route from Fisher’s Hill. The third cavalry division failed to block the road. On October 7, Torbert’s rear guard was attacked by CSA Brigadier General Thomas Rosser’s Confederate cavalry division. The 1st Vermont was in the rear guard and young Eri Woodbury described the unfolding events, “Today while pursuing our devastating course (the “Burning” of the Valley) we were attacked by Gen. Rosser’s Div. of Cavalry. I was sent out on a skirmish line with a squad of men. While there they flanked us upon the left, & our troops were forced into a confused retreat. I was at one time very near being captured.” Sheridan was furious that Torbert had failed. Besides the battlefield losses, Rosser’s troopers were able to capture seven important portable forges. On October 8, Sheridan met with Torbert and made his thoughts quite clear: “That night I told Torbert I expected him either to give Rosser a drubbing next morning or get whipped himself, and the infantry would be halted until the affair was over. I also told him that I proposed to ride out to Round Top Mountain to see the fight.”(v)
On the next morning, October 9, Torbert was able to resuscitate his career. In what would be called the Battle of Tom’s Brook (also known as the Woodstock Races) Torbert’s numerically superior cavalry, containing two divisions, was able to easily flank Rosser’s position. As historian Joseph D. Collea, Jr. described in his book, “The First Vermont Cavalry in the Civil War,” the Battle of Tom’s Brook “was a cavalry fight from start to finish.” The First Vermont was positioned on the right flank and would not see action until later in the battle. With Brigadier General George Custer leading the right wing, which included the 1st Vermont, the cavaliers charged forward in textbook style, building momentum gradually, rolling forward “in a walk to the skirmish line, then a trot, then a gallop, then a wild rush of shouting troopers and frantic horses.”(vi) Custer’s troopers quickly pushed CSA Colonel Thomas Munford’s cavalry from Spiker’s Hill while the left wing drove the remainder of Rosser’s cavalry from their position. Woodbury, then a sergeant, described the action, “We charged them, drove them and then drove them about seven miles.”(vii) It was at this point that the “races” began with Custer’s wing driving the Confederate cavalry towards Columbia Furnace while the left wing drove them towards New Market. The 1st Vermont would regroup, near Strasburg, after driving the enemy nearly twenty-six miles.
After the defeat of Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley at Fisher’s Hill, and the cavalry battle at Tom’s Brook, Federal army commanders felt that Early’s army was pretty well played out. By the morning of October 19, Sheridan’s entire Middle Department was bivouacked north of Cedar Creek, near Middletown. It was during the overnight hours, of October 19, that Early set in motion one of his most daring plans. Sending CSA Major General John B. Gordon’s Division on a wide right flanking march, Gordon was able to slam into US Brigadier General George Crook’s VIII Corps at first light. Quickly followed by the rest of Early’s army, Crook’s soldiers were pushed from their camps while their coffee was brewing. The VIII Corps were quickly routed and pushed through US Brigadier General William Emory’s XIX Corps camps with the result being the same. The Federal lines did not begin to stabilize until the last remaining Federal army corps, US Brigadier General James B. Rickett’s VI Corps, was pushed north, beyond Middletown. Unfortunately, for the Federal fortunes, Phil Sheridan was at Winchester. While he was away, US Major General Horatio Wright was left in charge of the army. While Wright was an able commander, he was surprised by the early morning attack and was unprepared to defend his position. Sheridan, hearing sounds of battle, mounted his powerful horse, Rienzi, and dashed back to his army. Covering the seventeen miles very quickly, Sheridan would find his army in disarray north of Middletown.
Quickly bringing order, out of the chaos, Sheridan deployed his army to counterattack. Riding in front of his lines he motivated his troops and the soldiers quickly realized they would be back in their camps that night. Early, realizing Sheridan had no plan to retreat, determined to set up a defensive line north of Cedar Creek. With the VI Corps marching towards the Confederate line, Sheridan ordered Custer to attack the Rebel left flank. Placing the 1st Vermont and 5th New York into line, he quickly began to push across the open fields of grass. Eri Woodbury would once again see action and would provide his country with his most valuable service at Cedar Creek. Confederate General John B. Gordon described the events unfolding around him, “There came from the north side of the plain a dull, heavy swelling sound like the roaring of a distant cyclone, the omen of additional disaster. It was unmistakable. Sheridan’s horsemen were riding furiously across the open fields of grass to intercept the Confederates before they crossed Cedar Creek.”(viii) The sudden charge of infantry and cavalry proved more than the Early’s shell shocked soldiers could handle. As Collea described in his book, “Before the Vermonters a cavalryman’s dream lay waiting – a foe, already psychologically defeated, was in every-man-for-himself flight.” This was not lost on the Vermont troopers, including Woodbury. Charging past the most forward Federal infantry position the 1st Vermont was pushing the Rebels hard. During the enemy’s flight, Woodbury, conspicuously mounted on his horse, and alone, came upon four armed Confederate infantrymen. With one of the Rebels hiding a flag behind his back, Woodbury, with only a saber, demanded their surrender. The tar-heels immediately complied becoming prisoners and turning over their weapons and flag. Woodbury, himself, describes it best, stating that he noticed “a little hill on the left of the road at the entrance to Fisher’s Hill was covered with fugitive infantry. I charged in alone, cut off four, and captured a battle flag belonging to the 12th NC Regt.’s infantry.”(ix) The victory was complete. Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley, already weakened, was forced to retreat deeper into the Shenandoah Valley.
The 1st Vermont Cavalry, would establish their winter camps near Winchester. On February 27, Sheridan’s army pushed south. Leading the van of the army was Colonel William Wells’ cavalry brigade – including the proud 1st Vermont. Wells had entered the service as captain of Company C, 1st Vermont. He was a favorite amongst the men from Vermont and had advanced slowly to brigade command. Sheridan’s objectives, during the late winter of 1865, were left somewhat to his discretion. Besides destroying the Virginia Central Railroad he was interested in the James River Canal and Lynchburg.(x) Upon reaching Staunton, Sheridan sent Custer’s division east towards Waynesboro, on March 2. Brigadier General Thomas Devin’s cavalry division followed Custer. Waynesboro was situated on the Virginia Central Railroad making it strategically important to Sheridan. Upon approaching the village, Custer found Early’s troops situated behind earthworks just west of town. Reconnoitering the area, it was determined that Early’s left flank was vulnerable to attack. Sensing an attack on this sector could crumble Early’s position, Custer turned again to the 1st Vermont. After forming their lines the brave Green Mountain boys charged the Rebel line, which quickly folded. With additional units attacking the center, Early was once again forced to retreat. While a small engagement, in term of forces engaged, the Confederates suffered over 1,500 casualties – most of them captured. Early and his staff, however, were able to elude capture. With the Shenandoah Valley completely cleared of resistance, Sheridan exited the valley and pushed south, destroying the James River Canal locks near Goochland Court House. On March 27 Sheridan reunited with the Army of the Potomac at Hancock’s Station near Petersburg.
The beginning of the end was at hand. Grant, now reunited with Sheridan, intended to use his forces immediately. On April 1, Sheridan commanding a force that included Devin and Custer’s cavalry divisions and US Major General Gouverneur K. Warren’s V Corps, attacked CSA Major General George Pickett’s division at Five Forks. While Woodbury, and the 1st Vermont, were held in reserve on the Federal left flank, the V Corps rolled up Pickett’s left flank forcing another Confederate retreat. The loss of Five Forks made Robert E. Lee’s position at Petersburg untenable. On the evening of April 2, Lee evacuated the trenches at Richmond and Petersburg and headed west. Sheridan again played a major role, in the retreat to Appomattox, preventing Lee from pushing south towards a junction with CSA General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee in North Carolina. On April 8, learning that supply trains were arriving at Appomattox Station, Custer’s cavalry division was able to defeat the Confederate reserve artillery, commanded by CSA Colonel Lindsay Walker, that was guarding the station. The 1st Vermont Cavalry played a significant role in the action there, holding the right flank of the attacking Federal line. While no Confederate casualty figures were given, nearly 1,000 soldiers were captured including Brigadier General Young Moody. Additionally 25–30 guns were captured along with a huge amount of supplies in the railroad cars. After surviving nearly 18 months unscathed, recently promoted First Lieutenant Eri Woodbury would be wounded in the woods north of the station. Woodbury described his wounding, “Suddenly (I) felt a blow (and a) numbing sensation across my breast and found myself turning a double somersault off into the bushes.” Getting up from the ground, Woodbury checked himself out and found his “fingers were completely knocked out and hanging over the backside (of my) hand by a little shred of skin.”(xi) This chance encounter with a piece of shrapnel would result in Woodbury having his right hand amputated.
On April 9, with the two sides facing off near Appomattox Court House, the Vermont cavalry was focused on a Rebel wagon train. With the Confederate position untenable, Custer would receive a courier from Lieutenant General James Longstreet requesting a cease fire so Grant could receive Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. It is fitting that Custer, and his 1st Vermont Cavalry, would play an instrumental role in the closing of the Civil War. While Sheridan’s cavalry would not be at Appomattox Court House for the official surrender ceremonies, they would take part in the Grand Review of the Federal armies in Washington on May 23. The 1st Vermont would finish its term of service at Champlain, New York, where they were on frontier duty. They would officially muster out of service on August 9, 1865. Due to his wounding, Lieutenant Woodbury would muster out on June 21.
After the war Woodbury would marry Emma M. McChesney. He would become a professor at the Episcopal Academy (present day Cheshire Academy) in Cheshire, Connecticut. He would become headmaster of the academy in 1892 and remain in that position until 1896 when he was made Principal Emeritus.(xii) Woodbury would be presented the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Cedar Creek. The citation, dated October 26, 1864, reads:
During the regiment’s charge when the enemy was in retreat Sgt. Woodbury encountered 4 Confederate infantrymen retreating. He drew his saber and ordered them to surrender, overcoming by his determined actions their willingness to further resist. They surrendered to him together with their rifles and the 12th North Carolina (C.S.A.) regimental flag.(xiii)
Lieutenant Eri Woodbury died on April 14, 1928 and is buried at Saint Peters Church Cemetery in Cheshire, Connecticut. He is a true American HERO.
(i) Collea, Jr., Joseph D., The First Vermont Cavalry in the Civil War, published by McFarland & Company, Inc. in 2010, Pg. 208.
(ii) Collea, Jr., Joseph D., The First Vermont Cavalry in the Civil War, published by McFarland & Company, Inc. in 2010, Pg. 226.
(iii) Collea, Jr., Joseph D., The First Vermont Cavalry in the Civil War, published by McFarland & Company, Inc. in 2010, Pg. 245.
(iv) Collea, Jr., Joseph D., The First Vermont Cavalry in the Civil War, published by McFarland & Company, Inc. in 2010, Pgs. 247–248.
(v) Collea, Jr., Joseph D., The First Vermont Cavalry in the Civil War, published by McFarland & Company, Inc. in 2010, Pg. 258.
(vi) Collea, Jr., Joseph D., The First Vermont Cavalry in the Civil War, published by McFarland & Company, Inc. in 2010, Pg. 259.
(vii) Collea, Jr., Joseph D., The First Vermont Cavalry in the Civil War, published by McFarland & Company, Inc. in 2010, Pg. 260.
(viii) Collea, Jr., Joseph D., The First Vermont Cavalry in the Civil War, published by McFarland & Company, Inc. in 2010, Pgs. 264–265.
(ix) Collea, Jr., Joseph D., The First Vermont Cavalry in the Civil War, published by McFarland & Company, Inc. in 2010, Pgs. 266–267.
(x) Collea, Jr., Joseph D., The First Vermont Cavalry in the Civil War, published by McFarland & Company, Inc. in 2010, Pg. 276.
(xi) Collea, Jr., Joseph D., The First Vermont Cavalry in the Civil War, published by McFarland & Company, Inc. in 2010, Pg. 283.
(xii) See Eri D. Woodbury at Cheshire Academy’s website.
(xiii) For further information see Civil War Medal of Honor Recipients: A Complete Illustrated Record, by Broadwater, Robert P., published by McFarland & Company, Inc. in 2007, Pg. 223.