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John Letcher

In office
1860 – 1864
Lieutenant Robert Latane Montague
Preceded by Henry A. Wise
Succeeded by William Smith

Born March 29, 1813(1813-03-29)
Lexington, Virginia, U.S.
Died January 26, 1884 (aged 70)
Virginia, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Profession Politician, Lawyer, Journalist

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 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.


Childhood, education

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.

Lawyer, journalist, Congressman

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. In 1864, his home in Lexington was burned by Union troops during General David Hunter's raid.

Postwar: General Assembly, VMI

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.


United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
James McDowell
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 11th congressional district

March 4, 1851 – March 3, 1853
Succeeded by
John F. Snodgrass
Preceded by
James F. Strother
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 9th congressional district

March 4, 1853 – March 3, 1859
Succeeded by
John T. Harris
Political offices
Preceded by
Henry A. Wise
Governor of Virginia
1860 – 1864
Succeeded by
William Smith


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