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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Dr. John Samuel Apperson

Dr. John Samuel Apperson (courtesy of Ellen Apperson Brown)

     "February 2, 1859. This morning was one of uncommon interest to me. I arose early and prepared myself to leave, for where, I hardly know" [1]. So begins the diary of 21-year-old John Samuel Apperson, a remarkable document written by a man confident that an adventuresome and successful future lay ahead of him. Future events would justify his optimism.

Malinda and Alfred Apperson (Jack Apperson, Ancestry)

     Born into humble circumstances in Orange County on August 21, 1837, John achieved a great deal in his lifetime. He was a man of many resources, and utilized his native talents to become successful in the fields of both medicine and business. He married twice and was the father of eleven children, some of whom became successful in their own right.
     John was the oldest of six children born to Alfred Apperson and Malinda Jones, who were married in Orange County on September 3, 1836. As a young man, Alfred had worked as an overseer. He later bought a 170-acre farm in Orange just north of the old Turnpike (modern Route 20) near Locust Grove. In the Civil War-era map detail of Orange County shown below, "A. Epperson" can be seen at right above the double red line indicating the Turnpike. Ellwood, the home of Horace Lacy, can be seen at far right. Row's Mill, the home of Elhanon Row and his extended family, lay athwart the Turnpike at far left.

Map detail of Orange County (

     John Apperson's childhood was typical for his time and place. He worked on the family farm doing chores like cutting wood, making rails and plowing with a team of oxen. He attended a school until he was 12 years old, and afterwards supplemented his education by reading whatever books and periodicals might come to his house. By the age of 17 he was working in a country store, but was handicapped by his lack of mathematical knowledge. He remedied this problem by purchasing a copy of "Key to Davies' Arithmethic," from which he taught himself [2].
     On that February morning in 1859, when his journal begins, John packed up his worldly goods--consisting of his his clothes--and placed $12.50 in money and twenty four cents in stamps in his pockets. He took leave of his family, and then walked to his grandfather's house nearby, where he spent the night. The next day, he walked to Orange Court House, where he boarded a train bound for Charlottesville. While changing cars in Gordonsville, he encountered a friend of his, identified as "J. S. R." [3]. John told his friend that he was headed west, perhaps to Mississippi or Alabama [4].
     John arrived in Charlottesville at 2:00 that afternoon. Realizing that he did not have enough money to make the journey he originally intended, he set off on foot from the train station. His goal now was to make it as far as Lynchburg and look for work. While walking down the road, John met local resident John Dudley, who lived in the hills between Charlottesville and Scottsville. The convivial Dudley invited John to his house. John spent a few enjoyable days with his sociable host and his family, which included two comely and friendly daughters. The evenings consisted of drinking, fiddle-playing and dancing. On the morning of February 7, John bade farewell to the Dudleys and struck out for Lynchburg [5].
     John continued walking south down the road (likely the forerunner to modern Route 29) toward Lynchburg. He crossed the Rockfish River by way of a bridge that was being built, and spent the night with an agreeable farmer in Nelson County. By now John was quite footsore, and had developed large blisters on his right heel and instep. His kindly host invited him to stay with him until his feet improved, but John was anxious to reach Lynchburg. On the morning of February 8 he resumed his journey south [6].
     John at last arrived at Lynchburg and took a room at an inn. While looking for work, he met a man from Marion in Smyth County, who suggested that he go to the Seven Mile Ford there and try to get a job on the railroad. John took the train to Marion, arriving with just twenty seven cents in his pocket [7].
     After a short stint at cutting railroad ties, John met Dr. William Faris. Impressed by John's intelligence and obvious potential, Dr. Faris urged John to take up the study of medicine. John did so, and began to read with Dr. Faris and accompanied him while visiting patients. The 1860 census shows that John was living with the Faris family and his occupation was "student of medicine." He continued along this path of endeavor until the outbreak of the Civil War.

Dr. Harvey Black (Virginia Tech Imagebase)

     On April 18, 1861, John Apperson was mustered into what would become Company D of the 4th Virginia Infantry in Marion. Two months later, he was assigned duty as a hospital steward under the direction of Dr. Harvey Black, the regimental surgeon. The two served together for the remainder of the war. Dr. Black became John's lifelong friend, mentor and colleague.
     Harvey Black was born on August 27, 1827 in Blacksburg, a town founded by his family. Like John Apperson, Dr. Black took up the study of medicine as a young man. In 1847 he enlisted as an infantryman to fight in the Mexican War. After three months's service in the ranks, he was appointed hospital steward, at which duty he served until he was mustered out in 1848. He enrolled in the University of Virginia upon his return home, and earned his medical degree in 1849. On September 15, 1852, he married Mary Irby Kent, with whom he had a daughter and three sons [8].
     In the years leading up to the Civil War, Dr. Black and his family lived in Blacksburg, where he practiced medicine. The 1860 census shows that the owned one slave, a 23-year-old woman. He enlisted in the 4th Virginia Infantry on May 4, 1861. He was named regimental surgeon, a post he held until November 20, 1862, when General Thomas J. Jackson appointed him chief surgeon of the Field Hospital, 2nd Corps, Army of Northern Virginia. He brought along with him hospital steward John Apperson.

Map detail of Spotsylvania County during the Battle of Chancellorsville (

      The events during the Chancellorsville campaign made an indelible impression on John's mind. Here are excerpts from his journal during that momentous week. The first entry was written while the 2nd Corps Hospital was encamped south of Hamilton's Crossing near Fredericksburg:

"Wednesday, April 29, 1863: This morning early the sound of cannon was bursting along the shore of the Rappahannock. A courier soon came back with some orders for Dr. Black. It stated that Dr. Black should be ready to move his hospital near the field. Dr. went to wash preparing to obey orders--another came ordering the ambulance train up. By 2 p. m. the wagons were ready to move...In wandering around we discovered the old Brigade. I saw the 4th and had a cordial meeting with the boys. There was considerable fighting near Fredericksburg, which resulted in some 30 killed and wounded and a company captured from our side.
Thursday, April 30, 1863: Today spent in camp speculating what would be done...The chief opinion is that we will fall back...The enemy is only making a feint here while the main body is crossing at Kelly's and Germanna...
Friday, May 1, 1863: Orders were received this morning from Dr. [Hunter] McGuire to move...At Telegraph Road we turned to the left at Mr. Wyatt's and out to the Plank Road [modern Route 610, now called Old Plank Road] at Tabernacle Church...We moved across the Plank Road and a little up to the right of the road, going west and camped. News at the front is that the enemy is falling back before our skirmishers.
Saturday and Sunday, May 2 and 3, 1863: The troops marched up the Plank Road to "New Store" [the home of John Alrich, at the intersection of modern Old Plank and Catharpin roads]. Here was a great many wounded. The house bore the unmistakable marks of a conflict nearby. Heavy cannonading toward the Old Furnace...The ambulance train took the old Catharpin Road and went up to Todd's Tavern. I was on horseback. There we took the road known as Brock's Road and paralleled it about a mile. The troops came out from the furnace [modern Jackson Trail East], crossed Brock's Road and left it to the right...Dr. Black directed us on a left hand road [modern Jackson Trail West] by William Stephens' and Mr. Triggs'. I began to expect that the fighting would occur at the Wilderness being the best position I knew of in this section of the county...We passed the old schoolhouse where I had studied the manners of spelling and arithmetic in 1845--nearly 18 years go. My feelings were such that I could not discuss them. Dr. Black was ordered forward to establish a hospital and send the ambulances on the field. When we reached the old pike [modern Route 3] the ambulances were sent down and the loaded wagons went to the Wilderness. Our tents were pitched along a gully where I have enjoyed many merry plays at "Gully's Keeper." The wounded commenced coming in and we  went to work. It seemed that Jackson commenced upon them as soon as he came up and the enemy made tracks. Our troops fought almost recklessly. The enemy left his mules. The saddest event of the day is a wound received by Gen. Jackson...he was wounded in the left arm and amputation was necessary. Dr. McGuire operated [Dr. Harvey Black assisted him]. The wounded commenced coming. The enemy's strong works had been stormed and taken principally by Trumble's Division under command of Brig. General Colston...The loss in the 4th Regiment is almost appalling--went in with 365 and lost 162. The "Blue and Gray" lost 50. The brigade charged the enemy's works three times before it was successful. General Paxton was killed; he was a brave man. Capt. Harman in the 4th Regt. was killed. Capt. Fulton lost a leg.
Monday May 4th, 1863: Nothing outside of the usual course of stirring events happened today. I saw some of the Misses Hawkins [9] and thought I knew them. A servant ran along and informed that I was right. I sent them my card and compliments...The fighting has nearly ceased. Our army is about one-half mile in advance of Chancellorsville and the enemy between that and the road. Both armies are intrenching. It was also reported that our force at Fredericksburg has been dislodged and the heights around Marye's House captured.
Tuesay May 5th, 1863: Today we were busy. Dr. Black sent Dr. Hackett and myself over to the barn to assist Dr. Straith...Dr. Straith put me to work on some mutilated hands. I took off a number of fingers and one was taken off in the middle of the metacarpal bone. This was Martin Roan, Co. D 4th Va. Infantry. I extracted a ball from among the tarsus of the foot of a soldier...
Wednesday May 6th 1863: This morning rain began to fall and soon the whole place was one mud puddle. I saw Lt. Col. Dugan and proposed that he go to my father's for a few days, but before he got off new orders came for the wounded to be sent to Guinea's Depot. Dr. Hackett and myself went over to the barn again; nothing much to do. I went home. My father had been down and brought me some things and had gone to the battlefield. He was not at home when I arrived...At home I found nothing new. The yard around the house was beautiful--as green as could be. I sat up late and went to rest with a cheerful good night. Today I met an old servant that had served under my father.
Thursday, May 7th 1863: This morning by 8 I was up and off to my post. Arrived there before some had left their bed...Today I performed my first important operation--took off a Yankee's leg below the knee. Dr. Gilkerson stood by. I felt no embarrassment whatever. Mrs. Jones gave me a full history of Yankee vandalism. It is truly distressing. No people can prosper whose propensities for wanton destruction of property and oppressing defenseless women is so great. How the blood is made to boil at such atrocities and such acts of inhumanity" [10].

     At the conclusion of the war, Dr. Black went home to Blacksburg, and John went back to the Faris home in Marion. John saved his money for a year and then applied to the medical school at the University of Virginia. The professor of surgery at that time was Dr. James Edgar Chancellor, whose family had owned Chancellorsville [11]. John received his medical degree in 1867 and returned to Smyth County, where he made the town of Chilhowie his home. On February 20, 1868, he married Ellen Victoria Hull. They had seven children together.
     Dr. Black resumed his medical practice, and he also took an interest in the Preston and Olin Institute, a Methodist boy's school in Blacksburg. The school became insolvent in 1872, and Dr. Black helped to reorganize it as the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, the forerunner of today's Virginia Tech. Black served as the first rector of the school's board of visitors. That same year Dr. Black also received the honor of being elected president of the Medical Society of Virginia.
     In 1875, Dr. Black was nominated to become superintendent of the Eastern State Lunatic Asylum. He had not lobbied for the position, and was taken by surprise by the action of the institution's board. However, after mature consideration, Dr. Black decided that he could do some good in that role. He moved his family to Williamsburg, and assumed his new position on January 1, 1876 and served until March 1882. His tenure there was characterized by his humane and compassionate treatment of his patients, and the helpful reforms he instituted [12].
     Soon after his return to Blacksburg, Dr. Black petitioned the state legislature for funding to establish a facility for the insane in southwestern Virginia. Approval was given, and he and Dr. Apperson served on the building committee for the Southwestern Lunatic Asylum, which was built in Marion and opened its doors to patients in 1888. Dr. Black was named as its first superintendent. Dr. Apperson served as assistant physician there.

Harvey Black, House of Degates, 1887 (Library of Virginia)

     Despite declining health, Dr. Harvey Black was elected to two terms in the House of Delegates, in 1885 and 1887. Dr. Black suffered from what were called "urinary calculi"--stones in his bladder. In October 1887, Dr. Black traveled to St. Luke's Hospital in Richmond, where Dr. Hunter McGuire performed surgery. The procedure was only moderately successful, and Dr. Black underwent surgery a second time on October 8, 1888. He never recovered from this second intervention. He died in Richmond on October 19, 1888. He lies buried in Westview Cemetery in Blacksburg.

Dr. John Apperson (Virginia Tech Imagebase)

      The decade of the 1880s was also a period of success and tragedy for Dr. John Apperson. He had a thriving medical practice, a position at the new asylum and had been elected vice-president of the Medical Society of Virginia in 1881, 1882 and 1885 [13]. During Dr. Black's medical crisis, death visited the Apperson home twice in 1887. His daughter, 17-year-old Pauline, died on September 2. His wife, Ellen, died on November 14.
     On February 5, 1889, John married Elizabeth "Lizzie" Arabella Black, the only daughter of Dr. Harvey Black. John and Lizzie had four children together.

John and Elizabeth Apperson and family (Virginia Tech Imagebase)

     In addition to his accomplishments as a physician, John also enjoyed success in the business and professional world. He organized the Staley's Creek Manganese and Iron Company. In 1892 he was appointed business executive commissioner of Virginia to the World's Fair held in Chicago in 1893. He was a key executive in the Marion and Rye Railway, and was in charge of its construction. He served on the board of trustees of Emory and Henry College [14]. His home gives evidence of his worldly success and prosperity:

Apperson home in Chilhowie (Anita Epperson, Ancestry)

     Dr. John Samuel Apperson died at home on August 9, 1908. He is buried in the Round Hill Cemetery in Marion.

(Virginia Tech Imagebase)


Two of Dr. Apperson's sons were well known for their public service in their own lifetimes. Harvey Black Apperson (1890-1948) served in the Virginia Senate 1933-1944. He then worked for three years as a member of the Virginia State Corporation Commission.  For the last few months of his life Harvey was Attorney General of Virginia.

John Samuel Apperson, Jr. (1878-1963) worked as an engineer for many years at General Electric. But he is best known and admired for his work as a conservationist in a lifelong effort to protect the Adirondack Forest Preserve and Lake George.

But the son of Dr. Apperson that I feel closest to is his firstborn, Alfred Hull Apperson (1869-1944).  Alfred was an electrical engineer who graduated from the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College in Blacksburg in 1894. He was in charge of the school's electric plant for several years after he graduated. Alfred worked in Richmond for many years as an electrical inspector for the Southeastern Underwriter's Association. In 1905 he married Sallie Duncan Williams of Lynchburg.

Duncan's parents were James Tompkins Williams (1829-1900), a merchant in both Richmond and Lynchburg, and Martha Jane Row (1828-1885), my second great aunt, who was born on our family's plantation in Spotsylvania.


- Repairing the "March of Mars": The Civil War Diaries of John Samuel Apperson, edited by John Herbert Roper. Mercer University Press, Macon, GA: 2001.

- Diary of John Samuel Apperson of Locust Grove

- Transactions of the Thirty Ninth Annual Session of the Medical Society of Virginia, Held in Richmond, Virginia October 20-23, 1908. Capitol Printing Company, Richmond, VA: 1909. Click here for the link

- Annual Reports of Officers, Boards and Institutions of the Commonwealth of Virginia For The Year Ending September 30, 1888. J. H. O'Bannon, Superintendent of Public Printing, Richmond, VA: 1888. Click here for link

- Students of the University of Virginia 1825-1874

- Men of Mark in Virginia: Ideals of American Life. A Collection of Biographies of the Leading Men in the State. Lyon G. Tyler, L. L. P., President of William and Mary College, Editor in Chief. Volume III. Men of Mark Publishing Company, Washington, DC: 1907.  Click here for link

- Culpeper Officer's Diary Tells of Chancellorsville," The Free Lance-Star, May 6, 1963.


[1] Diary of John Samuel Apperson of Locust Grove, 3.

[2] Men of  Mark in Virginia, 6.

[3] Most likely John Sanders Row.

[4] Diary of John Samuel Apperson of Locust Grove, 4.

[5] Ibid., 5-9.

[6] Ibid., 9-12.

[7] Ibid., 1-2.

[8] Annual Reports of Officers, 36.

[9] See my article: "During the war, the girls saw sights"

[10] "Culpeper Officer's Diary Tells of Chancellorsville." Although the title of the article is misleading, the content is correct. This section of John Apperson's diary had been transcribed by Chancellor descendant and historian George Harrison Sanford King while he was a student at Virginia Tech in the 1930s. At that time, the diary was still in the possession of the Apperson family.

[11] See my article: Dr. James Edgar Chancellor

[12] Annual Report of Officers, 37-38.

[13] Transactions of the Thirty Ninth Annual Session, 233.

[14] Men of Mark in Virginia, 8.


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