Dr. Eppes of City Point: Struggling in a world transformed

Not the stereotypical colonnaded plantation house, the Eppes house on City Point is surprisingly modest. The house sits on a point at the confluence of the Appomattox and James rivers, and the views are gorgeous, despite the distant spires of a chemical plant.

As the NPS ranger described Dr. Richard Eppes, plantation owner at City Point, Virginia–that he inhabited the very upper echelons of wealth, that his 2300-acre properties and household were worked by 130 slaves, nearly all of whom left at the prospect of freedom–a more close-up slice of Dr. Eppes’ life played in my mind.

A couple of years ago, I needed a record of central Virginia weather in the summer of 1869. At the Virginia Historical Society, I found near daily notations on the weather in the diary of Dr. Eppes, who was 45 that year.

The diary covers mostly the business of Appomattox Manor, as it was called: the weather, loans given or received, payments to employees, crops put in or harvested. Occasionally, though, the soul and emotions of the man break through, as if forced out by the many pressures on him during and since the War.

Dr. Eppes and his family left City Point in 1862 because of the War; Grant most famously occupied the property in 1864. After the War, Eppes barely, and at great cost, kept his plantation from confiscation. He and his family finally returned in 1866. By then their former life, including labor relations, was utterly transformed. He frequently mentions being unwell. Even nature itself opposed him; the August 31, 1869, Richmond Dispatch jubilantly reported rains “after a long and parching drought” but they didn’t last, and they came too late, anyway, to save Dr. Eppes’ crops.

The following diary excerpts (written mostly without punctuation) represents to me the way a man like Eppes saw himself: a gentleman, a lord of the manor–and a man struggling to find his place in a world over which he is no longer the unquestioned master.

In the payment off of the different gangs of day labourers this evening being quite unwell my wife agreed to do so for me being new at the business she mixes up things so that I got mad lost my temper & behaved most shamefully cursing in her presence ordering her away we have lived over 14 years together & I never recollect behaving so cruelly to her before & pray God it may never occur again

David Hunt one of my tenants called this evening to ask my advice about a fight he had with another man who threatened to have him arrested told him he did wrong to strike him first & was liable to be arrested for assault & battery & made to give security for keeping the peace or be sent to jail perhaps making himself scarce about the Point for a few days as the offense was [can’t read] might be his best plan

John Bird… formerly a slave of mine he appeared to me…to give him work which I did…then asked for his discharge whilst we were threshing wheat giving as an excuse that he could not give satisfaction to Mr Marks the overseer Mr Marks gave him his discharge & I paid him off, he wished to work at Appomattox but I declined employing him as I have found it a bad rule to employ former slaves of your own, being more unmanageable and disposed to take more liberties than strangers.

I shall commence visiting the farms tomorrow which I have much neglected in the last six weeks the weather being intensely hot & I being far from well and extremely low spirited by my bad success in farming since the end of the war not having made one good crop of any kind since the war ended. [sic]

NPS on Dr. Richard Eppes / Virginia Historical Society / University of Maryland / NPS “Voices from…Grant’s headquarters at City Point” – by people of the time

Posted in 19th century, Americana, Civil War | Tagged as: , , , | comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>