John Letcher (1813-1884), American politician, was a U.S. congressman before becoming Confederate governor of Virginia during the Civil War.
John Letcher was born in Lexington, Va., on March 29, 1813. He attended Washington College (today Washington and Lee University) and subsequently studied law. In 1839 he established a law practice in Lexington and in the same year became editor of the Valley Star, a Democratic newspaper in a local Whig stronghold. Intensely interested in politics, Letcher 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; however, he soon repudiated this antislavery stand. Letcher attended the state constitutional convention of 1850-1851 and was a vigorous advocate of retaining the Caucasian basis of representation in both houses of the legislature.
In 1851 Letcher was elected to the U.S. Congress, where he served until 1859. As a member of the Ways and Means Committee, he was a vigilant opponent of government extravagance, for which he earned the name "Honest John Letcher, Watchdog of the Treasury." In Congress he consistently defended the rights of the South against Northern interference, although he never glorified slavery as an institution.
Letcher was nominated by the Virginia Democratic party for the governorship in 1859 and was elected by a slight margin after a spirited campaign. His Whig opponents characterized him as an abolitionist, and he was often referred to as the candidate of the "free soil democracy of Virginia." In the 1860 presidential campaign Letcher supported Stephen A. Douglas, and after the secession of the lower South, he provided support for the peace movement. Letcher opposed the secession of Virginia until the Federal government called for troops in April 1861.
As Virginia's governor during the Civil War, Letcher proved a zealous supporter of the Confederacy and advocated the vigorous prosecution of the war until Southern independence could be achieved. After the war he was imprisoned for several months in Washington. Upon his release and his return to Virginia, he counseled the South to accept the outcome of the war in good faith. Letcher himself had lost a great deal of property; his home had been burned by the Union Army, and inflation left him practically bankrupt. For 10 years after the war Letcher practiced law in Lexington. He served two terms in the Virginia House of Delegates, from 1875 to 1877. He died in Lexington on Jan. 26, 1884.
The only thorough study of Letcher is F. N. Boney, John Letcher of Virginia: The Story of Virginia's Civil War Governor (1966). This work demonstrates excellent use of research materials and is ably presented. □