Edward Potter was born in New York City in 1823 and graduated as valedictorian of Columbia College (now Columbia University) in 1842. Though he studied law, he went to California to participate in the Gold Rush of the late 1840s and 1850s. By 1860, he was back in the east, living with his brother in Morris County, New Jersey.
Potter enlisted as a captain in the army commissary service shortly after the Civil War began. He came to eastern North Carolina with the Burnside Expedition and served as the chief commissary officer for Gen. John G. Foster's brigade. In May 1862, he was appointed colonel of the newly formed 1st North Carolina Union Volunteers. He served on Foster's staff during the Goldsboro Expedition (aka, Foster's Raid) in December 1862, and was promoted to brigadier general immediately following the expedition. On January 12, 1863 Potter became chief of staff for General Foster.
Potter is best known for his own expedition into North Carolina's interior on July 19-23, 1863. Potter's Raid, as it became known, was conducted by a force of 800 Union soldiers and included major engagements at Greenville, Rocky Mount, and Tarboro, as well as many smaller skirmishes throughout the eastern part of the state. The expedition was a Union success that saw Potter's forces destroy the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad bridge over the Tar River, a Confederate ironclad under construction at Tarboro, two other Confederate steamships, the Rocky Mount Mills, and large quantities of Confederate military provisions and supplies. Potter's men also captured 100 Confederate prisoners, and brought 300 contrabands (enslaved persons) back to New Bern.
Potter served out much of the remainder of the war as General Foster's chief of staff, and retired from the army at the rank of brevet major general. He returned to New Jersey and practiced law. He died of pneumonia on June 1, 1889 and is buried in New York City.