Gov. John Letcher

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John Letcher

Birthplace: Lexington, Rockbridge Co., Virginia
Death: Died in Lexington, Rockbridge Co., Virginia
Place of Burial: Lexington, Rockbridge, Virginia, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of William Houston Letcher and Elizabeth Davidson
Husband of Mary Susan Holt
Father of Andrew T. Letcher; Elizabeth Letcher; Fannie P. Letcher; Greenlee Davidson Letcher; John D. Letcher and 4 others
Brother of Colonel Samuel H. Letcher (CSA)

Occupation: Lawyer, US Congressman, Governor of Virginia
Managed by: Donald Franklin Colvin
Last Updated:

About Gov. John Letcher

Time Line

  • March 29, 1813 - John Letcher is born in Lexington, the son of merchant William Houston Letcher and Elizabeth Davidson Letcher.
  • 1832 - John Letcher enrolls at Washington College in Lexington. He approaches his studies with little enthusiasm and departs the college after just one year. He apprentices as a carpenter for several months before pursuing his interest in politics and law.
  • 1838 - Democrats James McDowell and John Letcher run for the two Lexington County seats in the House of Delegates; they lose the election.
  • February 1839 - John Letcher is appointed editor of the new Democratic newspaper, the Lexington Valley Star. He serves the paper off and on for the next decade.
  • April 26, 1839 - John Letcher receives license to practice law.
  • 1840 - John Letcher is nominated and then defeated in his run for the Virginia House of Delegates.
  • May 14, 1843 - John Letcher marries twenty-year-old Susan Holt of Staunton.
  • 1844 - John Letcher is elected one of Lexington's seven trustees. He also temporarily returns as editor of the Lexington Valley Star to foster support for U.S. presidential candidate James K. Polk, a Democrat.
  • 1847 - At a series of meetings held by Lexington's debate society, John Letcher defends the interests of western Virginia against the more politically and economically powerful eastern part of the state. He even advocates secession if all other remedies fail.
  • 1848 - John Letcher signs his name to the Ruffner Pamphlet, which argues for the gradual emancipation and colonization of enslaved people in western Virginia.
  • 1850 - John Letcher is appointed commissioner of the North River Navigation Company, which plans to extend the James and Kanawha Canal up the North River to Lexington to stimulate commerce and ease transport.
  • August 22, 1850 - John Letcher wins a seat representing the Shenandoah Valley district at the Constitutional Convention of 1850–1851, where he serves on the Executive Committee and is instrumental in developing the adopted legislation.
  • January 7, 1851 - The Richmond Republican Advocate, a liberal weekly newspaper, begins publication with John Letcher's support.
  • March 4, 1851 - John Letcher is elected as a Democrat to the U.S. Congress. He serves for four consecutive terms, leaving Congress on March 3, 1859.
  • 1859 - While serving in the U.S. Congress, John Letcher warns that a "sectional storm rages wildly" and hints at secession by suggesting that "the Union is in imminent danger."
  • May 1859 - After successfully seeking the Democratic nomination, John Letcher is narrowly elected governor of Virginia over the Whig Party candidate, William Goggin.
  • January 1, 1860 - John Letcher is sworn in as Virginia's governor in Richmond. He serves through December 31, 1863.
  • March 1862 - Hoping to control what has become an extremely violent guerrilla war in Virginia, Governor John Letcher authorizes the Virginia State Rangers, partisan guerrillas under the state's control. The law becomes the model for a Confederate bill passed a few weeks later.
  • March 12, 1862 - Virginia governor John L. Letcher issues an executive order authorizing Confederate authorities to incorporate the Virginia militia into existing Confederate units. In the Shenandoah Valley, Confederate general Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson eagerly awaits these recruits.
  • April 2, 1863 - Denied a meeting with Governor John Letcher, a group of Richmond women begin looting shops downtown to protest insufficient food, initiating what came to be known as the Bread Riot. One account claims Letcher calls out the Home Guard and threatens to have the women shot unless they disperse.
  • January 1, 1864 - John Letcher leaves the office of Virginia governor and is succeeded by William "Extra Billy" Smith.
  • May, 15 1864 - John Letcher's eldest son, Samuel Houston Letcher, a freshman cadet at the Virginia Military Institute, fights in the Battle of New Market.
  • June 10, 1864 - Fleeing from Union troops under David Hunter, John Letcher hides in the mountains southeast of Lexington. The troops burn his home and all his possessions.
  • May 20, 1865 - On Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant's order, John Letcher is arrested as a "particularly obnoxious" political leader. He is held in the Old Capitol Prison for forty-seven days, and meets with U.S. president Andrew Johnson before departing for Lexington.
  • 1866–1880 - John Letcher is elected to the Virginia Military Institute Board of Visitors and serves as its president for ten years.
  • January 15, 1867 - U.S. president Andrew Johnson grants John Letcher a full pardon for his activities during the war.
  • 1875–1877 - John Letcher serves as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. He suffers a series of strokes, beginning just three months after entering office, which limit his involvement.
  • January 26, 1884 - John Letcher dies in bed at his home. He is interred in the Lexington Presbyterian Cemetery.


John Letcher (March 29, 1813 – January 26, 1884) was an American lawyer, journalist, and politician. He served as a Representative in the United States Congress, was the 34th Governor of Virginia during the American Civil War, and later served in the Virginia General Assembly. He was also active on the Board of Visitors of Virginia Military Institute.

Early life

John Letcher was born in the town of Lexington in Rockbridge County, Virginia. He attended private rural schools and Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. In 1833, he was graduated from Washington Academy in Lexington. He studied law, was admitted to the Virginia State Bar, and opened a practice in Lexington in 1839.


Letcher was editor of the (Shenandoah) Valley Star newspaper from 1840 to 1850. He was active in the presidential campaigns of 1840, 1844, and 1848, serving as Democratic elector in 1848. Although never a true abolitionist, he signed the Ruffner Pamphlet of 1847, which proposed the abolition of slavery in that part of Virginia west of the Blue Ridge Mountains; however, he soon repudiated this antislavery stand. He was a delegate to the State Constitutional Convention in 1850.

He was elected as a Democratic candidate and served as a Representative in the United States Congress from 1851–1859. In Congress, he was known as "Honest John" because of his opposition to government extravagance.

American Civil War

John Letcher was elected as Governor of Virginia in 1859, defeating Whig candidate William L. Goggin, and served from 1860–1864. Letcher was prominent in the organization of the peace convention that met in Washington, D.C., February 8, 1861, in an effort to devise means to prevent the impending American Civil War. He discouraged secession, but was active in sustaining the ordinance passed by Virginia on April 17, 1861. Colonel John Brown Baldwin defeated Letcher in May 1863 for a seat in the Second Confederate Congress. In 1864, his home in Lexington was burned by Union troops during General David Hunter's raid.


After the Civil War, Letcher resumed the practice of law in Lexington. He was elected as a member of the House of Delegates in the Virginia General Assembly 1875–1877. He was a member of the Board of Visitors of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) 1866–1880 and served as president of the Board for ten years.

He died on January 26, 1884 at the age of 70, and was interred in the Presbyterian Cemetery (Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery) at Lexington, Virginia.


Boney, F.N. (1966) John Letcher of Virginia; The Story of Virginia’s Civil War Governor. University, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1966.

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Gov. John Letcher's Timeline

March 29, 1813
Lexington, Rockbridge Co., Virginia
Age 32
Lexington, Rockbridge County, Virginia
Age 35
Lexington, Rockbridge County, Virginia
Age 36
Lexington, Rockbridge County, Virginia
Age 40
Lexington, Rockbridge County, Virginia
Age 43
Lexington, Rockbridge County, Virginia
Age 45
Lexington, Rockbridge County, Virginia
- 1864
Age 46
Age 48
Lexington, Rockbridge County, Virginia