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,

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.”

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

  1. Must have been a hellacious fighter to make such an impression on the Grey Ghost. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I thought the same thing, and Mosby generally knew what he was talking about when it came to fighting men.

  3. If memory serves, there is a monument for the 1st Vermont Cavalry at Battery Park in Burlington, Vermont.

  4. He is buried with his fiance, Hattie Chadwick, who died of typhoid fever 29 May 1863. It is said that Capt. Woodward had rec’d the news of Hattie’s death just prior to Hagerstown, and his grief over the news somehow contributed to his gallantry on the field the day of his death. Their combined tombstone reads: “These two who were fondly united in life shall not be separated in death.” His father, Rev. John H. Woodward is renowned as the “Fighting Chaplain” of the VT Cavalry.

  5. This is the account as related in the Regimental History.

    On the 2d of March, a detachment of 50 men of companies H and M, under captains Huntoon and Woodward, were sent out to scout for Mosby. Near Aldie, they met a party of 200 men under Major Gilmer of the Eighteenth Pennsylvania, returning from an expedition to Middleburg. Taking Huntoon’s squadron for a party of the enemy, Gilmer, though in much larger force, made a hasty retreat, for which and for drunkenness on the occasion, he as dismissed from the service. Some stragglers of his men, however, reported to Huntoon that they had just passed through Aldie, and found no enemy there. Thrown off his guard by this report Huntoon entered the town, and stopped to feed the horses in the yard of a grist-mill. Officers and men dismounted, some of the horses were taken to a blacksmith shop near by to be shod, and the rest were unbridled and feeding, when Mosby appeared upon the scene. With a party of about 30 men he had been following Gilmer in the hope of capturing some stragglers, and discovering the dismounted troopers about the mill in Aldie dashed in upon them. Huntoon and a number of men were surrounded and captured in and about the mill. The rest scattered and escaped, with the exception of Captain Woodward. He had ridden a short distance outside the village to reconnoitre and hearing firing, hastened back. As he reached the bridge, in the village, two of Mosby’s men attacked him. He defended himself till his horse was shot and fell upon his leg, pinning him to the ground. While thus disabled one of his antagonists rode up close to him and began firing at him. His right arm fortunately was free, and drawing a small revolver from his breast pocket, he succeeded in putting a ball through his assailant; but would have been killed by the comrades of the latter if Mosby, who had seen the transaction, had not ridden up and rescued him. The partisan chieftain had him taken to a house and put to bed—his injury from the fall of his horse being severe—took his parole and rode away. The loss by this affair was two officers and 14 men captured, most of whom were exchanged in month or two later.

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