John Taylor Chappell was born on May 18, 1845, the son of Samuel Chappell, a Richmond butcher, and Eliza B. Gentry Chappell. Before his fifteenth birthday he began an apprenticeship to a coachmaker. The Civil War intervened, and in May 1861, against his mother’s wishes, Chappell enlisted in Company H of the 23rd Virginia Infantry Regiment, also known as the Richmond Sharpshooters. He took part in the Rich Mountain and Cheat Mountain battles in western Virginia before being discharged on October 12, 1861. Early the next year he joined Company A of the 10th Virginia Cavalry and fought in the. Chappell also served in the Confederate States Navy aboard the ironclad Virginia II late in 1864 and as first sergeant in Company D of the 1st Regiment Naval Brigade. He surrendered in North Carolina and was paroled at Greensboro on May 1, 1865.
Chappell returned to Richmond, became a carriage painter, and resided at the corner of Twenty-second and Clay streets on Union Hill, a community of laboring men, artisans, and shopkeepers who lived in modest frame houses. On October 14, 1866, he married Martha Virginia Scherer. Of their four children, one daughter and one son reached adulthood. Chappell owned a large library from which he educated himself. His grandson, Samuel W. Chappell, who became a nationally recognized book illustrator and typographer, fondly recalled his grandfather, who lived with the extended family, and his grandfather’s meetings at their home, where his progressive friends and comrades discussed philosophy, society, and socialism.
Chappell joined the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and taught in a Baptist Sunday school. His experiences as a laboring man in a time of corporate and industrial consolidation combined with his socialist beliefs to lead him into working-class activism. Chappell joined the Knights of Labor, organized and served as master workman of Union Assembly No. 3545, and became a leader in Richmond’s District Assembly 84. Also one of the organizers of the Knights of Labor Building Association in the city, he won election on January 19, 1886, as a trustee and director representing Union Assembly. In November of that year he was elected secretary.
Despite simmering class antagonism, a lack of working-class solidarity had defeated strikes by Richmond ironworkers and bricklayers in the 1870s and early in the 1880s. Breaking this pattern, the Knights organized workers across skill, racial, and even gender divides. Richmond’s working-class people boycotted flour produced in the local Haxall Mills because it used convict labor and eventually forced the giant mill to capitulate. Arguing that local quarries should provide the stone and employ organized labor, the Knights in May 1886 also organized protests against the contracts to construct a new city hall.
The national leadership of the Knights of Labor had long eschewed overt politics as an avenue for implementing change, but as the movement gathered strength, local leaders in many communities turned to the political arena. As working-class activism in Richmond increased, both theand parties co-opted the movement. In July 1885 several Knights won election to the Democratic Party’s ward committees. Chappell received a seat on the seven-member committee representing Jefferson Ward. The Knights of Labor held a convention in Richmond in May 1886 and nominated a slate of reform candidates for city offices. Later that month the reformers won election in five of the city’s six wards. Some, including Chappell, who became one of three aldermen from Jefferson Ward, were veteran labor men, and others were Republicans and Democrats pledged to reform.
Chappell served on the bicameral Richmond city council for four years and sat on the committees on the streets, on the first market, on retrenchment and reform, and on the fire alarm and police telegraph. He chaired the committee on the second market in 1888. The victory of the reformers quickly proved illusory. Even before the new council’s first meeting, the reform caucus fell into bitter feuds regarding policy and patronage. Democrats elected under the reform banner backed away from their campaign commitments, especially after the council’sdemanded that blacks receive a share of the city’s jobs. Chappell and the remaining eleven members of the caucus, all white trade unionists and labor and political reformers, turned to the six African American councilmen for support. The reformers remained a marginalized minority, however. They were attacked for their progressive views and effectively shut out of major decisions.
Despite these setbacks, Chappell and other white progressives made common cause with a powerful black popular movement that increasingly associated its interests with those of the Knights of Labor. The hundreds of black fraternal orders that flourished in postwar Richmond provided thousands of recruits who were attracted by the Knights’ fraternal ritual and structure and its acceptance of black working people, albeit in segregated local assemblies. White radicals increasingly allied themselves with black aspirations as well. Chappell was instrumental in opening membership in the Knights’ building association to African Americans. When the Knights of Labor held its national convention in Richmond in October 1886, he served as a key organizer for a series of events that brought thousands of black Richmonders into the streets. On October 11 he was a marshal for a parade of black and white laboring men that made its way to the fairgrounds for sporting events, fireworks, and a grand ball.
While Chappell and other white labor leaders drew closer to the black popular movement in 1886, the national meeting of the Knights exposed an opposite tendency among Richmond’s white workingmen. Many declared their anger when some northern delegates to the convention flouted racial conventions in the city, and a dispute about the role of a black delegate in the meeting’s program also caused consternation. The massive participation of African Americans in public events at the convention and the black community’s agenda, which went well beyond workplace reforms, gave white trade unionists pause. Such splits along lines of race, occupational skill, and religion contributed to the eventual decline of the Knights both nationally and locally, divisions that leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties eagerly exploited.
The waning of the Knights did not deter Chappell and his comrades from continuing to organize workingmen and to advocate transformations of society. In January 1888 he attended a state convention of wage-workers in Staunton. There Chappell introduced resolutions asking the General Assembly to restrict child labor and to adopt the secret ballot. The convention attempted to unite the labor movement with farmers and advocated such familiar reforms as restriction of convict labor but had no practical result. In April 1895 Chappell held a meeting at his Union Hill home to organize the Altrurian Assembly of a new, or reformed, Knights of Labor. The organization became Local Union No. 1 of the Cooperative Commonwealth of Virginia. Because the members preferred to spend their dues on local projects, on February 7, 1898, the local withdrew from the national organization and renamed itself the Socialist Educational Club of Richmond. From its inception, it sought to educate the people of Richmond about socialism, and the members sponsored lectures and distributed literature on social and labor topics.
For the organization’s second meeting, Chappell prepared a short paper entitled “What Is Socialism.” In it, he explicitly rejected the notion that socialism was derived from a Christian basis, although he admitted that Christian ethics were perfectly compatible with socialist teaching. Chappell’s views may have been a reaction to the overtly Christian symbolism and language employed by the Knights of Labor and other Christian Socialists. Chappell asserted that socialism sprang from basic human necessities of a materialistic character, notably adequate clothing, food, and shelter. He had put those views into practice as an officer in the Knights of Labor Building Association. Chappell and his contemporaries believed that many of the difficulties facing the working class were the result of rents and other sources of economic dependence, a key tenet of early Jeffersonian Republicanism and American artisan protest. According to his grandson, Chappell’s unusual views on society and religion were the probable cause of his removal as a Sunday school teacher and expulsion from his church.
Chappell’s socialist worldview did not deter him from honoring the memory of his fellow Confederates. As master workman of Union Assembly No. 3545, Knights of Labor, he presented to the city council a petition signed by many of his neighbors asking that the proposed equestrian statue ofbe placed in Marshall Park on Church Hill rather than at the site that was eventually selected on the western outskirts of the city. Chappell’s postwar writings suggest that he learned different lessons from the Civil War than had many other Confederate veterans. In a series of unpublished reminiscences written in the 1890s, he recounted some of his wartime experiences in a decidedly nonheroic style, focusing instead on the common soldier and the irony of war. His writings include a poignant account of a young soldier’s death at Cheat Mountain and his own small part in the blunders of his unit at the . Chappell also wrote about the career and death of a member of Richmond’s all-Irish Montgomery Guard who had been a childhood playmate. Because the soldier was not “born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and there being no one sufficiently interested to trace his pedegree back to some family of English ari[s]tocracy, the fount from which must flow all human perfection,” his memory was fleeting, like that of “a meteor which causes exclamations of wonder and admiration, when coursing its way through the heavens, [but] is forgotten as soon as its trail of fire fades from view.” Chappell’s sympathy, as always, was with the common man. Indeed, when asked why he had fought for the Confederacy, he stated that he went to war because he did not want to leave his friends. After the Civil War, Chappell became a pacifist.
Chappell died suddenly of an aneurysm on September 27, 1915, at the Gross Carriage Works in Richmond and was buried in the city’s Oakwood Cemetery.