Erben was born in New York City. He entered the Navy as a midshipman 17 June 1848. He gave distinguished service in the Civil War, commanding the ironclads St. Louis and Sumter in the Mississippi River, and Pinola in the Gulf of Mexico, and with the naval howitzer battery which served with the Army during the Antietam campaign.
He retired 6 September 1894, but returned to duty during the Spanish-American War, commanding the Patrol Fleet which guarded the coast of the United States from Galveston, Texas to Bar Harbor, Maine. Rear Admiral Erben died in New York City.