John B. Eastham (ca. 1828–1869)


John B. Eastham represented Louisa County at the Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868. A physician, Eastham was a Unionist during the American Civil War (1861–1865) and allied with the conservative faction of the Republican Party after the war. A local official from the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands noted him as a potential office holder for Louisa County in March 1867. Later that year Eastham emerged as a compromise choice when county Republicans nominated a candidate to represent Louisa at the convention called to rewrite the state constitution. He unsuccessfully attempted to resign his seat three days after winning his election, citing reasons of party unification. Eastham voted for enfranchising African Americans but voted with Conservatives on issues involving restrictions on voting or officeholding by former Confederates. He ultimately voted against adopting the new Virginia constitution in 1868 and died the following year.

Eastham was born about 1828, the son of David Eastham, a slaveholding farmer, and Elizabeth Bunch Eastham. Keepers of public records sometimes rendered the family name as Estham or Esom, which suggests the possible pronunciation. By August 1850 Eastham was practicing medicine in his native Louisa County. He inherited two tracts of land totaling almost eighty-two acres from his maternal grandfather, but in 1849 he sold this property to his father for $350 and continued to live in his parents’ household. On October 12, 1858, Eastham married Anna E. Pettus, also of Louisa County. They had one daughter and four sons, one of them born after Eastham’s death. In 1860 he, his wife, and a medical student whom Eastham was training were boarding with a prosperous farmer. That year Eastham owned one female slave, and at other times he hired slaves, one of whom ran away while in his employment.

The Freedmen's Bureau.

Eastham was a Unionist during the Civil War and by 1867 had joined a Union League. During the spring of that year he signed a circular letter, penned by the moderate Republican John Minor Botts, declaring himself an “unconditional Union” man and a member of “the great ‘Republican Union party‘” and urging like-minded citizens to organize themselves to influence the autumn election. Describing Eastham in March 1867 as “a good and true man of strong Union sentiment,” the district superintendent of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands recommended him as one of six prominent and influential Louisa County white men eligible to hold office under Reconstruction. On October 22 of that year Eastham won election to represent Louisa County in the constitutional convention called in compliance with federal Reconstruction legislation.

Eastham received 1,592 ballots from African Americans, who were voting for the first time, and 72 from white men, while the Conservative candidate, a former Confederate captain, garnered 541 white votes and only 3 black ones. Three days after his victory at the polls Eastham tendered his resignation, explaining in the Richmond Daily Whig that he was a compromise candidate and that his election was not satisfactory to all party members. The commander of the Virginia military district refused to accept Eastham’s resignation, however, on the grounds that he had no authority to do so and that Eastham had willingly sought the seat.

The State Convention At Richmond

At the convention, which met in Richmond from December 3, 1867, to April 17, 1868, Eastham held low-ranking seats on the Committees on Education and the Funds Relating Thereto and on Future Revision and Amendment of the Constitution. He missed or abstained from many key votes and made no formal remarks during the portion of the convention for which a record of debates survives. Characterized as a moderate Republican, Eastham declared that he came to the convention ready to compromise on issues in the interest of restoring harmony. He supported enfranchising African American men but voted with Conservatives on issues involving restrictions on voting or officeholding by former Confederates. He opposed disfranchising whites who had cast ballots for secessionist candidates to the Constitutional Convention of 1861 and also the imposition of a test oath that would have prevented many whites from holding elective office. Eastham backed efforts to require racial segregation in the new public schools. On April 17, 1868, he joined twenty-five other delegates in voting against the final version of the constitution. In explaining his opposition, Eastham denounced the acrimonious debates indulged in by delegates who had placed personal and party interests above reconciling the state’s hostile factions and likened them to the unnatural mother who was willing to have King Solomon split in twain the baby she falsely claimed was hers. He urged Virginians to reject ratification of a document he considered divisive and as violating “both the letter and spirit” of Congress’s Reconstruction acts.

Eastham died of hepatitis on an unrecorded date in July 1869. Most likely he was buried in the Pettus family cemetery near Bumpass, where at least two of his children have grave markers.

ca. 1828
John B. Eastham is born in Louisa County to David Eastham, a slaveholding farmer, and Elizabeth Bunch Eastham.
John B. Eastham sells inherited land to his father for $350 and continues to live with his parents.
August 1850
John B. Eastham is practicing medicine in Louisa County.
October 12, 1858
John B. Eastham and Anna E. Pettus, of Louisa County, marry. They will have one daughter and four sons.
By this year, John B. Eastham is a member of a Union League.
March 1867
An agent of the Freedmen's Bureau recommends John B. Eastham as a one of six Louisa County white men eligible to hold office under Reconstruction.
Spring 1867
John B. Eastham signs a circular by John Minor Botts urging citizens to organize as Unionists.
October 22, 1867
John B. Eastham wins election to represent Louisa County at the Constitutional Convention of 1867—1868.
October 25, 1867
John B. Eastham tenders his resignation from the Constitutional Convention of 1867—1868, hoping to encourage party unity. His resignation is denied.
December 3, 1867—April 17, 1868
John B. Eastham participates in the Constitutional Convention of 1867—1868 as a moderate Republican.
April 17, 1868
John B. Eastham votes against the Underwood Constitution at the Constitutional Convention, citing party unification.
July 6, 1869
John B. Eastham dies of hepatitis and is most likely buried in the Pettus family cemetery near Bumpass.
  • Baggett, James Alex. The Scalawags: Southern Dissenters in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003.
  • Hume, Richard L. “The Membership of the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868: A Study of the Beginnings of Congressional Reconstruction in the Upper South.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 86, no. 4 (October 1978): 461–484.
  • Lowe, Richard G. “Virginia’s Reconstruction Convention: General Schofield Rates the Delegates.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 80, no. 3 (July 1972): 341–360.
APA Citation:
Bearss, Sara & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. John B. Eastham (ca. 1828–1869). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/eastham-john-b-ca-1828-1869.
MLA Citation:
Bearss, Sara, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "John B. Eastham (ca. 1828–1869)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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