“He died because too brave to abandon his post even in the face of a fearful pestilence and too humane to let his fellow beings perish without giving all the aid in his power to save them,” wrote Capt. Charles W. Howell, responsible for Corps of Engineers works in Louisiana, in 1873. “His name should be cherished, not only by his many personal friends,” he continued, “but by the Army, as one who lived purely, labored faithfully, and died in the path of duty.”
Captain Howell penned that tribute to his deputy, Lt. Eugene A. Woodruff, a young officer whom Howell sent from New Orleans to the Red River of Louisiana as supervisor of the project to clear the great log raft, a formidable obstruction to navigation (see photographs below). Henry M. Shreve first cleared the Red River raft in the 1830s, but the raft formed again during years of inadequate channel maintenance resulting from meager congressional appropriations and neglect during the Civil War.
Lieutenant Woodruff left his workboats and crew on the Red River in September 1873 to visit Shreveport and recruit a survey party. When he arrived, he found Shreveport in the grip of a yellow-fever epidemic. Fearing he might carry the disease to his workmen if he returned to camp, he elected to stay in Shreveport and tend to the sick. He volunteered his services to the Howard Association, a Louisiana disaster-relief charity, and traveled from house to house in his carriage, delivering food, medicine, and good cheer to the sick and dying. He contracted the disease himself and died in late September, “a martyr,” reported the Shreveport newspaper, “to the blessed cause of charity.”
“His conduct of the great work on which he was engaged at the time of his death,” said the New Orleans District Engineer, “will be a model for all similar undertakings and the completion of the work a monument to his memory.” Captain Howell assigned responsibility for finishing the job on the Red River to Assistant Engineer George Woodruff, brother of the lieutenant.
Woodruff’s selfless actions not only eased the suffering of Shreveport residents, but his decision to remain in the town no doubt lessened the threat to his crew. Spared from the disease, the engineers successfully broke through the raft, clearing the river for navigation on 27 November 1873. An Ohio River snagboat built the following year received the name E. A. Woodruff in recognition of the lieutenant’s sacrifice. The vessel served until 1925. More than a century later the people of Shreveport continue to honor the memory of Lieutenant Woodruff.
Portion of the Red River raft to be cleared by the Corps of Engineers in 1873
Crane boat crew clearing the Red River raft in 1873
(top) Lt. Eugene Woodruff, ca. 1866 (USMA Archives)
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