Richard Eppes (1824–1896)


Richard Eppes was a wealthy planter, slaveholder, Confederate soldier, and wartime surgeon whose detailed diaries have provided historians insights into the lives of elite Virginians of his time. Born at his family’s plantation in Prince George County, Eppes was educated in Petersburg and at the University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary, and the University of Pennsylvania, before traveling in the Middle East. It was during that trip that he began his lifelong habit of recording his experiences in a diary. Eppes found high earnings in his plantations where his father had not, and treated the enslaved men, women, and children who labored for him with a strict, sometimes violent paternalism. At the Convention of 1861 he supported remaining in the Union, but when the American Civil War (1861–1865) began he joined a cavalry regiment, serving during the Peninsula Campaign (1862) before hiring a replacement. He later served as a surgeon at a Petersburg hospital while Union general Ulysses S. Grant used his property as his headquarters while laying siege to the city. After the war, Eppes returned to farming and died in 1896. His Appomattox Manor later became a unit of Petersburg National Battlefield, while his diaries were published in twenty-one volumes.

Early Years

Benjamin Cocke

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 Family Photo

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

List of Enslaved People Owned by Richard Eppes

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.

As reflected in his diaries, Eppes lived a life typical of his status in society. He spent most of his days tending to the estates. Eppes traveled to Richmond in February 1861 to observe the convention called to act during the secession crisis. He described in his diary the convention’s atmosphere, but he seemed as enthralled with conversations regarding agriculture as with those about secession. Eppes supported Virginia’s remaining in the Union, but only on the condition that slavery was protected. Eppes had joined a new Prince George County cavalry company in 1860, and after the state convention voted to secede he mustered into service as a private on April 20, 1861, with the rest of his unit as what became Company F of the 5th Virginia Cavalry Regiment (later the 13th Virginia Cavalry Regiment).

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.

Appomattox Manor under Union Occupation

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.

Later Years

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.

Servants at Appomattox Manor

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.

May 2, 1824
Richard Eppes is born Richard Eppes Cocke in Prince George County.
Richard Eppes attends the University of Virginia.
October 26, 1840
Richard Eppes Cocke legally changes his name to Richard Eppes.
Richard Eppes enrolls at the College of William and Mary.
Richard Eppes receives a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
Richard Eppes travels through Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria, documenting his trip in a diary.
March 12, 1850
Richard Eppes and Josephine Dulles Horner marry in Philadelphia.
Richard Eppes assumes control of his family's estates in Prince George County.
January 23, 1852
Josephine Horner Eppes dies as a result of complications during childbirth.
November 2, 1854
Richard Eppes and Elizabeth Welsh Horner, the sister of his first wife, marry. The will have one son and eight daughters.
Richard Eppes joins a cavalry company in Prince George County.
February 1861
Richard Eppes travels to Richmond to observe the secession convention.
April 20, 1861
Richard Eppes musters into service as a private in Company F of the 5th Virginia Cavalry Regiment.
June 13, 1862
Richard Eppes is honorably discharged from Confederate service after providing a substitute.
September 10, 1862
Richard Eppes is honorably discharged a second time from Confederate service.
January 1864
Richard Eppes becomes acting assistant surgeon at the hospital at City Point.
May 1864
After being captured, Richard Eppes is released as a prisoner of war in exchange for a Union prisoner.
September 1864
The family of Richard Eppes flees to Philadelphia.
June 28, 1865
Richard Eppes receives a pardon for his service with Confederate forces during the Civil War.
March 1866
The family of Richard Eppes, having fled to Philadelphia during the Civil War, returns to Prince George County.
Richard Eppes purchases 306 acres of land in Prince George County on which to grow cotton.
Richard Eppes begins investing in Arizona Territory silver mines.
Richard Eppes provides property on which his former slaves can establish a chapel.
Richard Eppes disapproves of Episcopal Church's decision to separate blacks and whites in church and the state governing council.
July 1889
Richard Eppes begins turning over management of his estates to his son.
February 17, 1896
Richard Eppes dies of apoplexy at his Prince George County home and is buried at City Point.
  • Nicholls, Michael L. “‘In the Light of Human Beings’: Richard Eppes and His Island Plantation Code of Laws.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 89, no. 1 (January 1981): 67–78.
APA Citation:
Tucker, Christopher & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Richard Eppes (1824–1896). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/eppes-richard-1824-1896.
MLA Citation:
Tucker, Christopher, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Richard Eppes (1824–1896)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 17 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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