C. Vann Woodward was born in Vanndale, a town named after his mother's family, in Cross County, Arkansas. Woodward attended high school in Morrilton, Arkansas. He attended Henderson-Brown College a small Methodist school in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, for two years. In 1930 he transferred to Emory University, where his uncle was Dean of students and professor of sociology. After graduating he taught English composition for two years at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. There he met Will W. Alexander, head of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, and J. Saunders Redding an historian at Atlanta University.
Woodward took graduate courses in sociology at Columbia University in 1931 where he met, and was influenced by, Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance movement. In 1932 he worked for the defense of Angelo Herndon, a young Communist Party member who had been accused of subversive activities. He traveled to the Soviet Union and Germany in 1932.
He did graduate work in history and sociology at the University of North Carolina. He was granted a Ph. D. in history in 1937 using as his dissertation the manuscript he had already finished on Thomas E. Watson. Woodward's dissertation director was Howard K. Beale, a Reconstruction specialist who promoted the Beardian economic interpretation of history that deemphasized ideology and ideas and stressed material self interest as a motivating factor.
In World War II, he served on the historical staff of the Navy, writing battle reports, including The Battle of Leyte Gulf (1946).
In 1974, the House Committee on the Judiciary asked Woodward for a historical study of misconduct in previous administrations and how the Presidents responded. Woodward led a group of fourteen historians and they produced a thorough 400 page report in less than 4 months, Responses of the Presidents to Charges of Misconduct.
Woodward won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for Mary Chesnut's Civil War, an edited version of Mary Chesnut's Civil War diary. He won the Bancroft Prize for The Origins of the New South. Martin Luther King, Jr. called The Strange Career of Jim Crow "the historical bible of the civil rights movement."
C. Vann Woodward died in Hamden, Connecticut.
The Southern Historical Association has established the C. Vann Woodward Dissertation Prize awarded annually to the best dissertation on Southern history. There is a Peter V. and C. Vann Woodward Chair of History at Yale; it is now held by southern historian Glenda Gilmore.