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John Echols

Union or Secession
John Echols (1823–1896). Photograph in Special Collections, Library of Virginia.
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John Echols (1823–1896). Photograph in Special Collections, Library of Virginia.
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JOHN ECHOLS (1823–1896)

John Echols (20 March 1823–24 May 1896), member of the Convention of 1861 and Confederate army officer, was born in Lynchburg and was the son of Joseph Echols and Elizabeth Frances Lambeth Echols. After graduating from Washington College (later Washington and Lee University) in 1840, he enrolled that summer at the Virginia Military Institute. Echols resigned from VMI on 14 August 1841 but later was made an honorary graduate of the Class of 1843. He also studied law at Harvard College.

After a brief stint teaching in Harrisonburg, Echols was admitted to the bar in Rockbridge County in October 1843. He practiced law in Staunton before moving to Monroe County. There Echols executed a marriage bond on 20 November 1844 and on that date or soon afterward married Mary Jane Caperton, whose father Hugh Caperton had sat in the House of Representatives for a single term. Their one daughter and two sons included Edward Echols, who served as lieutenant governor of Virginia from 1898 to 1902.

Echols served as commonwealth's attorney and in December 1851 won election as a Whig representing Monroe County in the House of Delegates during the sessions that met from January to June 1852 and from November 1852 to April 1853. He sat on the Committee on Roads and Internal Navigation and on joint committees to examine the treasurer's accounts and for the protection of slave property and for the removal of free blacks from the state. At the time of the 1850 census he owned two adult and three young slaves, and a decade later he owned four adult and two young slaves.

The Convention of 1861

On 4 February 1861 Echols and his brother-in-law Allen Taylor Caperton were chosen to represent Monroe County in a convention called to determine Virginia's response to the secession crisis. He sat on the Committees on Finance and on Military Affairs. On 1 March he offered resolutions calling on Congress to recognize the Confederate States as an independent nation. Echols sided with the majority voting against secession on 4 April. Following the firing on Fort Sumter and Abraham Lincoln's call for troops to suppress the rebellion, he voted on 17 April for secession, and in a speech several days later he called for sound planning and efficient military organization. Echols later signed the Ordinance of Secession. He resigned from the convention on 11 November, before the third and final session met.

The Civil War

On 30 May 1861 Echols was commissioned a lieutenant colonel in the 27th Regiment Virginia Infantry, which he had organized and which fought as part of the Stonewall Brigade. In part because of his actions commanding the regiment at the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) on 21 July, he won promotion to colonel on 14 October. Echols received severe wounds in his arm and shoulder at the First Battle of Kernstown, near Winchester, on 23 March 1862 but returned to service after being promoted to brigadier general on 18 April, to date from 16 April. He then served under Major General William Wing Loring, whom he succeeded as commander of the Department of Western Virginia and East Tennessee, operating in the Kanawha valley.

Citing ill health, Echols tendered his resignation as brigadier general on 30 June 1863, a request approved on 3 July but then disallowed. He sat on a board of inquiry investigating the Confederate failure at Vicksburg and in November commanded troops in the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Droop Mountain, in West Virginia. On 15 May 1864 Echols fought at the Battle of New Market and then marched to reinforce Confederate troops defending Richmond. He led his regiments at the Battle of Cold Harbor late in May and early in June. Threatening Washington, D.C., on 9 July 1864 Echols commanded a brigade at the Battle of Monocacy, near Frederick, Maryland.

During the autumn and winter of 1864, Echols deployed troops to Floyd County to suppress Confederate deserters and their secret Unionist supporters. On 29 March 1865 he was reappointed commander of the Department of Western Virginia and East Tennessee. Following the Army of Northern Virginia's surrender at Appomattox Court House on 9 April, Echols led a band of cavalrymen who escorted Confederate president Jefferson Davis from Salisbury to Charlotte, North Carolina. Echols was paroled at Greensboro on 1 May 1865, took the amnesty oath on 13 June, and received a presidential pardon on 4 November.

Restoration and Ratification

After the Civil War, Echols moved to Staunton and resumed practicing law. Beginning in December 1868 he worked closely with several other prominent residents of Augusta County to broker a compromise ending Reconstruction in Virginia and easing the state's readmission to the Union. Echols helped select the delegates (later informally designated the Committee of Nine) who arranged with the president and key members of Congress for ratification of a new state constitution that restored voting rights for former Confederates and that guaranteed suffrage rights for African American men.

In November 1877 Augusta County voters elected Echols to the House of Delegates, where he chaired the Committee on Militia and Police and sat on the Committees on Asylums and Prisons and on Finance. An opponent of readjusting the state debt, he won reelection in 1879, this time also representing Staunton. Echols continued on the Committees on Asylums and Prisons and on Finance and joined the Committee on Banks, Currency and Commerce. He was a Democratic presidential elector at large in 1880. He had served on the VMI board of visitors from 1858 to 1861, and in June 1869 he was appointed to the board of trustees of Washington College, on which he sat until his death. Echols became receiver and general manager of the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad Company and president of the National Valley Bank of Staunton. Because of his duties in the former position, he spent a good deal of time in Louisville, Kentucky, working closely with the railroad magnate Collis Potter Huntington.

Echols's wife died on 6 October 1874, and sometime before June 1880 he married Mary Cochran Reid, a widow from New York City with three children. They had no children. John Echols died of Bright's disease, a kidney ailment, at the home of his son in Staunton on 24 May 1896. He was buried in Thornrose Cemetery, in that city.

Contributed by Marc Leepson

This biography, with a bibliographical note, will appear in John T. Kneebone et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography (Richmond: The Library of Virginia, 1998– ), volume 4 (forthcoming).

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