Eppes was born in City Point, Virginia. He had earned his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania and inherited his ancestral home, Appomattox Manor at City Point, by the age of twenty. At the time of the Civil War, he was married, had a family, and owned nearly 130 slaves and 2,300 acres (9.3 km²). Eppes favored preservation of the Union, provided that Southern rights in slave property could be protected. In the Election of 1860, he supported John C. Breckinridge, who led the Southern faction of the Democratic party. Breckinridge represented those who were states-rights and proslavery men, but who were not radical secessionists.
When war broke out, Eppes enlisted in the 3rd Virginia Cavalry and helped equip the unit. About a year later, he furnished a substitute to complete his obligation. Early in May 1862, his wife and children moved into Petersburg for protection. Just days later, a Union raiding party landed at City Point. When the troops departed, all but twelve of Eppes's slaves had decided to cast their fortunes with the Union army.
Eppes then became a civilian contract surgeon for the Confederate army in Petersburg for the duration of the war. He was able to get his family out of Petersburg in the middle of the siege. They traveled to his in-laws in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to wait out the war. When Petersburg fell, he decided to stay behind with the wounded as Robert E. Lee evacuated the city.
By May 1865, Eppes had taken the Amnesty Oath but found that because of his wealth he did not qualify to benefit from the Amnesty Proclamation. He had to raise money to obtain the title to his land and to settle up with the Federal government. Also he had to purchase any of the structures the Union army left behind on his land before he could touch them. By early 1866, after a favorable transaction with the government, the plantation was back in his hands, and by March his family was together again at City Point.
Eppes kept voluminous, detailed diaries. The volumes for 1849 and 1851-1896 are in the collections of the Virginia Historical Society, in Richmond.
- Bowman, Shearer Davis. "Conditional Unionism and Slavery in Virginia, 1860-1861: The Case of Dr. Richard Eppes." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 96 (January 1988): 31-54.
- Richard Eppes biography at the National Park Service's Petersburg National Battlefield