The Heroics of Capt. John Woodward, 1st Vermont Cavalry

The Civil War constantly moved past the Aldie Mill. On March 2, 1863, it became the site of the famous Aldie Races (courtesy of Richard T. Gillespie)

On March 2, 1863, fifty-nine troopers of the 1st Vermont Cavalry trotted into Aldie and stopped at the village’s prominent mill to rest. Suddenly and unexpectedly, two Vermont scouts on the northwest end of town stumbled into an advancing force of Confederate cavalry belonging to John S. Mosby’s command. “A charge was immediately ordered,” Mosby recalled. Mosby’s tactics caught the Vermonters—who dismounted their horses and wandered around the Aldie Mill and the village—completely by surprise. The Federal cavalrymen panicked and ran in several different directions. Few fought back against Mosby’s charge.

Amidst the chaos, twenty-three-year-old Capt. John Woodward leapt onto his horse and began firing at the Confederates during his first taste of combat. Woodward desperately attempted to rally his soldiers, but he mainly fought alone in that effort. Mosby’s men zeroed in on the heroic officer. The young captain continued to fire until he ran out of ammunition. Dropping his revolver, Woodward drew his sabre and charged into the enemy. A bullet struck down Woodward’s horse, which collapsed on top of him and trapped him underneath. Still, Woodward refused to give in, and pulled a smaller revolver out of his coat pocket. The revolver had only two shots, but he made good use of them, mortally wounding one enemy soldier bearing down on him. Now faced with no more options, Woodward threw up his hands in surrender.

Woodward’s injuries sustained during the brief fight in Aldie earned him a stay in a nearby home. That evening, Mosby visited the heroic captain, supposedly remarking that Woodward “was the bravest and best fighting man he [Mosby] ever saw.” Respecting his gallantry and the hard-fighting 1st Vermont Cavalry, Mosby paroled Woodward, sending him back to the Federal camps in northern Virginia the next day.

Capt. John Woodward’s grave in Cambridge, Vermont (courtesy of Sabina, findagrave.com)

John Woodward found himself in another predicament four months later in Maryland. During the Confederate army’s retreat from Gettysburg, a fight erupted in the streets of Hagerstown on July 6, 1863. The well-respected Vermont cavalrymen charged into the fight, spurred on and led by Capt. Woodward. Two bullets pierced Woodward’s body simultaneously, one through the brain and another into his breast. He pitched forward onto his mount’s neck and died almost instantly. A countercharge by his Confederate adversaries left his body in the enemy’s hands for one week while Southern soldiers “rifled, stripped and buried” his remains. Federals recovered the body when Hagerstown once again fell within Union lines and reinterred them “in the Presbyterian burying ground at Hagerstown.” His father, the regiment’s chaplain, retrieved the remains and returned them home to Vermont for burial.

Local Vermont newspapers covered the young captain’s death extensively. One mourned the loss of the University of Vermont graduate, calling him “a young man of high spirit and sense of duty, and of genial qualities which endeared him greatly to his friends, and a capable and efficient officer.”