Richard Eppes was born Richard Eppes Cocke on May 2, 1824, in Prince George County. His father, Benjamin Cocke, managed the family estates that his wife, Mary Eppes Cocke, had inherited at Eppes Island, in Charles City County; Bermuda Hundred, in Chesterfield County; and City Point (later Hopewell), in Prince George County. Benjamin Cocke did not prove a successful planter, however, and he made a living through a blacksmith shop and shad fishing. When he died in 1836, the estates returned to Mary Cocke’s control, and their only surviving child became the sole heir. In accordance with his mother’s wishes to keep the surname Eppes associated with her family estates, Cocke legally changed his name to Richard Eppes on October 26, 1840.
Eppes attended Petersburg Classical Institute and from 1840 to 1843 the University of Virginia. After enrolling at the College of William and Mary in 1843, he matriculated at the University of Pennsylvania and received a medical degree in 1847. Eppes traveled through Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria in 1849. He documented the Near Eastern trip in a diary, a practice that he continued throughout his life.
Eppes married Josephine Dulles Horner, a daughter of the medical school dean, on March 12, 1850, in Philadelphia. She died on January 23, 1852, as a result of complications during childbirth. Eppes suffered through a long depression during which he did not write in his diaries. In accordance with Josephine Eppes’s wishes that he maintain a strong connection with the Horner family, he married Elizabeth Welsh Horner, his late wife’s sister, on November 2, 1854, in Philadelphia. They had one son and eight daughters, three of whom died in childhood.
Planter, Soldier, Surgeon
Eppes’s mother died in 1844. In 1851 Eppes assumed control of his estates, which comprised about 2,000 acres of land and more than eighty slaves, and endeavored to prove more successful than his father had. Appomattox Manor, at City Point, became his home. During the 1850s he began purchasing additional property nearby that became his Hopewell Farm plantation. Engaging in scientific agriculture, including crop rotation, Eppes also incorporated a systematic approach to managing his slaves. He directed them to follow a strict code of conduct. His paternalistic style of management was not kind; he viewed the lash as the ultimate means of maintaining control. Eppes wrote at length in his diaries about his slave management system, including his yearly visits each January to each of the estates, where he read aloud his detailed rules and regulations. While his father had been able to realize only $2,000 to $2,500 in crops per year, he earned between $10,000 and $12,000 annually.
Stationed at camps along the James River, the company saw combat in the Peninsula Campaign during the spring of 1862. Eppes provided a substitute to complete his term of service in June 1862 and received an honorable discharge on June 13 and again on September 10, 1862. In January 1864 he became an acting assistant surgeon at the hospital at City Point, where he was captured and exchanged in May of that year. At the Civil War’s end, Eppes was employed as a contract surgeon at a Petersburg hospital. He had to apply for amnesty because he owned property valued at more than $20,000 and on June 28, 1865, received a pardon.
Although Eppes seldom wrote in his diaries about his experiences during the Civil War, he did record the destruction he found when he returned to his plantations. Appomattox Manor had suffered severe damage in 1862, although some repairs had been made to the house while Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant used the property as his headquarters during the Siege of Petersburg. A special order in October 1865 restored the City Point estate to Eppes’s control, and his family, which had sought safety in Philadelphia in September 1864, finally returned home in March 1866.
Like many other planters Eppes struggled with the transition from a slave to a free society, as he had to contend with paying wages, strikes, theft, arson, and vandalism. Like many other farmers he began to diversify his crops. Eppes experimented with cotton and peanuts and with using guano as a fertilizer. His diversification also included completing in 1874 the purchase of 306 acres of land in Prince George County, on which he grew cotton, and investing beginning in 1880 in Arizona Territory silver mines. Although Eppes remained tied to his paternalistic view of former slaves, he was willing to assist them in 1889 by providing property on which they could establish a chapel, and he disapproved of the Virginia Episcopal Church’s decision that same year to separate black and white Episcopalians in church and in the state governing council.
Late in the 1880s Eppes’s health began deteriorating and became an impediment to running his estates. He began turning over management to his son in July 1889 and in October 1895 leased to him control of Bermuda Hundred, Eppes Island, and Hopewell Pastures for a term of fifteen months. Despite his declining health, Eppes continued to oversee the harvest. Eppes died of apoplexy at his home on February 17, 1896. He was buried in the family plot at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, at City Point.
In 1979 the National Park Service acquired Appomattox Manor and it became a unit of Petersburg National Battlefield. As a man consumed with order, Eppes carefully recorded in his diaries daily activities on his estates, as well as personal and financial transactions. Twenty-one volumes spanning forty-four years, these detailed diaries provide invaluable insight into the lives of Virginia’s planter elite during the nineteenth century.