Civil War veteran Eri D. Woodbury's Medal of Honor | Image from Cheshire Historical Society
Since the Medal of Honor was created during the Civil War, less than 4,000 veterans have received the nation's "highest award for valor in action." Two of those recipients, heroes who come so few and far between, hail from Cheshire, Conn.
"It was I suppose a coincidence, but coincidence or not, it's noteworthy," said John White, Navy veteran and Cheshire resident. (White's name may ring a bell, as he lobbied for President George Washington to receive a posthumous Medal of Honor. )
Both recipients, Eri D. Woodbury and Harvey Curtiss "Barney" Barnum represent "people of good character, stout Yankee stock ... who valued patriotism,” White said.
Civil War veteran Sgt. Woodbury received the medal for capturing four Confederates and their flag. Finding them in retreat in 1864 during the Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia, he drew his saber and ordered their surrender. They, overcome by his "determined actions," according to the citation, did.
Though Woodbury was actually born in New Hampshire, after the war, he made a home in Cheshire. He taught Latin and Greek at the Cheshire Academy, and went on to become its headmaster. One of the buildings there is named for him, as is a street in the town.
Barnum began his service as a Marine, and served in Vietnam.
On Dec. 18, 1965, in Ky Phu in the Quang Tin Province, he earned his medal for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty," according to the citation. When "extremely accurate" enemy fire separated his company from the rest of its battalion, Barnum looked out for artillery targets. He found the radio operator dead and the rifle commander mortally wounded. Barnum treated the commander, then took the radio and assumed control of the rifle company, "moving at once into the midst of the heavy fire, rallying and giving encouragement to all units, reorganized them to replace the loss of key personnel and led their attack on enemy positions from which deadly fire continued to come."
From that position, "he moved fearlessly through enemy fire to control the air attack against the firmly entrenched enemy while skillfully directing one platoon in a successful counterattack on the key enemy positions." He carried out the battalion's objective and saw to it the dead and wounded were evacuated.
He was 25 years old.
When he returned home after receiving the medal, Cheshire - where he'd been high school class president and grown up as a Boy Scout - welcomed him home with a parade. He served 28 years in the Marines, and after he retired served for eight years as assistant deputy Secretary of the Navy for Reserve Affairs.
White knew Barnum in high school.
"In a sense, he is a childhood friend of mine," White said. "But that is not to decrease the respect and honor that is due to him."
White said he realized Barnum and Woodbury deserved some sort of permanent recognition in the town itself for their service.
White approached the town council in the early 1990s, and in 1998 the Medal of Honor Plaza was dedicated, with Barnum giving the keynote speech.
The monument is located at the entrance to a park, and has a star-shaped base, 50 feet from point to point, honoring the medal itself. A black granite lectern has an inscription honoring the town's two heroes, as well as images of the three variants of the medal.
The lectern contributes to a bigger idea behind the monument - to educate kids about what true heroism means.
"Heroes are made not born," White, a retired teacher, said. "Barney was just a kid growing up in Cheshire like they are, but he performed his life and acted in extraordinary ways - not that I want them to all go off to war, but to internalize the strength of character."
Barnum wanted a "Living Classroom," with tree seedlings from places associated with America's history, such as Mt. Vernon and the battlefield at Gettysburg. Now, five different types of trees are planted, one at each point of the platform and along walkways. Children, supervised by vets, planted each of the seedlings.
Eagle Scouts helped the project, too. One created the highway sign for the monument. Another recently installed granite benches. Barnum, who lives in Virginia, called to thank him.
White and his wife also created a display on the two vets for the local library.
He considers it an honor to have been able to honor Woodbury and Barnum.
"What a national treasure we have here in town in the form of two genuine heroes."