John Echols was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, on March 20, 1823. Like many other future Confederate officers, he attended Virginia Military Institute for a brief time. He then graduated from Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) and Harvard Law School. Afterward, he moved to Union, in what is now West Virginia, to open a law practice, which he operated until the secession crisis of 1861.
Echols represented Monroe Country at the Virginia Secession Convention and voted in favor of leaving the Union. A majority of delegates agreed with him, and so Virginia seceded. Immediately after, he returned to Western Virginia to raise a military company, which became the 27th Virginia Infantry. He became the regiment’s lieutenant colonel, and it became part of the famed Stonewall Brigade, which earned its distinctive name at First Bull Run. Echols then took part in General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley campaign, where he was wounded at Kernstown. Jackson himself commended Echols and his men, calling their actions “noble.” Echols was promoted to brigadier general in April.
In the summer of 1863, Echols served on a court of inquiry investigating the fall of Vicksburg in early July. He was subsequently sent to the Kanawha Valley in another Confederate attempt to gain control of the region. However, all hopes of controlling West Virginia were vanquished when Echols and about 1,700 Confederates were defeated by General William W. Averell on the slopes of Droop Mountain.