Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Richard Evelyn Byrd (29 December 1801–1 January 1872), member of the Convention of 1850–1851, was born at the Cottage, his father's 1,000-acre estate in the eastern portion of Frederick County that became Clarke County in 1836. He was the son of Thomas Taylor Byrd and Mary Anne Armistead Byrd, and he was a grandson of William Byrd (1728–1777) and his first wife, Elizabeth Hill Carter Byrd. His father had been a captain in the British army before and during the American Revolution and afterward, in 1785, was the first member of the family to move to northwestern Virginia.

Richard Evelyn Byrd lived all of his adult life in Winchester, where he practiced law. Tall, dignified, and somewhat austere, he was a skillful courtroom advocate. On 6 April 1826 he married a cousin, Anne Harrison, daughter of a prominent King George County planter. By the time she died on 16 October 1841 they had had three sons and one daughter. Between November 1843 and November 1850 Byrd married a widow, Margaret Funsten Bennett. His second marriage produced no children.

A lifelong Democrat, Byrd flourished in the turbulent political climate of the 1840s and 1850s. He represented Winchester and Frederick County in the House of Delegates in the session of 1839–1840 and for three consecutive terms beginning in 1841. During all four terms he sat on the Committee for Courts of Justice, and he also served one session each on committees concerned with roads and internal improvements, the auditor's accounts, banks, and claims. Byrd strongly supported the interests of the Shenandoah Valley and led an unsuccessful fight for free public education, a major issue of contention between western Virginia and a state government dominated by eastern interests. In 1850 he was one of four delegates elected to represent the district consisting of Frederick, Hampshire, and Morgan Counties in a state constitutional convention that met from 14 October 1850 to 1 August 1851. Byrd served on the Committee on the Judiciary. He spoke on 10 March 1851 in favor of apportioning legislative seats on the basis of the adult white population, a proposal of the western reformers, but he missed the key votes on the basis of apportionment. He voted in favor of the constitution as finally approved on 31 July 1851.

In 1851 Byrd and Henry Bedinger, a former congressman from Shepherdstown, were both nominated for the House of Representatives at separate Democratic Party conventions held in the district. In the heated political atmosphere that followed the debates on and the adoption of the Compromise of 1850, Bedinger was perceived by some as a secessionist. Byrd, who owned slaves but was not as radical as Bedinger, withdrew from the race in order to avoid splitting the Democratic vote. Many of Byrd's supporters either sat out the election or voted for the Whig candidate, Charles James Faulkner (1806–1884), of Berkeley County, who won the bitter contest in what was to be the last Whig victory in a Virginia congressional election.

Byrd's position on slavery and the value of the Union reflected an ambivalence shared by many of his neighbors during the 1850s. He continued to add to his slaveholdings and by 1860 owned twenty-six bondsmen, making him one of the largest owners of slaves in Frederick County. Byrd persisted in his opposition to secession and believed that Southern industries should be encouraged, even to the point of boycotting Northern products, as a means of influencing Northern opinion on the slavery issue. Early in 1861, as Virginia debated whether to follow the cotton states out of the Union, Byrd came to accept the idea of a peaceful separation. In January, he told a public meeting in Winchester that there had been ample provocation for the South's action, and secession would, in fact, prevent a civil war and lead to a reconstructing of the Union.

A colonel in the 51st Regiment of the Virginia militia when the Civil War began, Byrd, who was then sixty years old, took no active role in the war, although in November 1861 he may have served briefly as provost marshal in Winchester. Byrd suffered a paralytic stroke in 1863. When he applied on 30 January 1866 for a presidential pardon, which he was required to do because of the value of his property, he was unable to speak, walk, or even sign his own name. He was granted the pardon on 5 July 1866. Richard Evelyn Byrd died at his home in Winchester on 1 January 1872 and was buried in Old Chapel Cemetery in Clarke County, one mile from where he was born.

Sources Consulted:
Birth and death dates from gravestone inscription as abstracted in Stuart E. Brown Jr., Lorraine F. Myers, and Eileen M. Chappel, Annals of Clarke County, Virginia (1983), 2:70; Thomas K. Cartmell, Shenandoah Valley Pioneers and Their Descendants: A History of Frederick County, Virginia (1909), 449; Alden Hatch, The Byrds of Virginia (1969), 225–230; Garland R. Quarles, Some Worthy Lives: Mini-Biographies, Winchester and Frederick County (1988), 53; Richard E. Byrd Papers, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond; Charles Town Virginia Free Press, 28 Oct. 1841, 21 Aug.–16 Oct. 1851; Robert P. Sutton, Revolution to Secession: Constitution Making in the Old Dominion (1989), 220; 10 Mar. 1851 speech reported in Supplement, 1850–1851 Convention Debates, no. 21; Winchester Virginian, 28 May 1851, 30 Jan. 1861; Martinsburg Gazette, 5 Aug., 2 Sept. 1851; Virginia Case Files for United States Pardons (1865–1867), United States Office of the Adjutant General, Record Group 94, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; obituaries in Winchester Times, 3 Jan. 1872, Charles Town Virginia Free Press, 6 Jan. 1872, and Berryville Clarke Courier, 11 Jan. 1872.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Michael J. Gorman.

How to cite this page:
Michael J. Gorman,"Richard Evelyn Byrd (1801–1872)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2001 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Byrd_Richard_Evelyn_1801-1872, accessed [today's date]).

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