If anyone looked like he was handpicked by central casting to play the part of a firebrand, it was Edmund Ruffin. Thin and lean, with long white hair and a hot temper, this Virginia planter became the very symbol of Southern “fire-eaters”—a grim-faced warrior willing to back up his beliefs with a musket.
If not for the sectional crisis, however, Ruffin might have been remembered as a progressive agriculturist. As a young man, the Virginia native experimented with marl, improved irrigation, fertilization and crop rotation. He shared his findings in journal articles and launched his own magazine, the Farmer’s Register, in 1833. Ruffin developed a remarkable new plantation called Marlbourne near Richmond. He later accepted the presidency of Virginia’s State Agricultural Society.
By the late 1850s, Ruffin was well on his way to turning militant on much larger issues. The bloody Nat Turner slave revolt of 1831, increasing antislavery agitation in the North and the guerrilla war in Kansas Territory, had hardened his distrust of his Yankee brethren. Slavery, he declared, “is our own concern and we will not consent to its regulation being touched by the people of the north.” Not only was the institution a vital part of Southern rural and economic life, he insisted, it served “to postpone, if not prevent, the existence, or supremacy, of a destitute class of voters, numerous enough to govern the state….”
Ruffin urged separation from the North in pamphlets, formed the ultra-patriotic League of United Southerners and, in 1859, raced to watch John Brown executed for the raid on Harpers Ferry. He subsequently sent 15 of Brown’s pikes to Southern governors as “evidence of the fanatical hatred borne by the dominant northern party to the institutions [and] the people of the Southern States.”
With civil war looming, he published Anticipations of the Future, to Serve as Lessons for the Present Time—a clever and incendiary “forecast” of the coming clash that caused Northern newspaper editors to denounce him as a “hoary Disunionist.”
When his home state didn’t secede fast enough for his taste, he left for South Carolina and joined that state’s Palmetto Guard. He is generally credited with touching off the first shot of the war, at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. “The first shell from columbiad Number 1, fired by the venerable Edmund Ruffin, of Virginia, burst directly upon the parapet of the southwest angle of the fort,” reported Captain G.B. Cuthbert.
At the First Battle of Manassas in July 1861, the Palmetto Guard made sure he was out of harm’s way. But Ruffin, avid to spill Yankee blood, managed to fire off a cannon shot that destroyed the bridge over Cub Run. He was disappointed later to find just a few of the hated blue-coated invaders lying dead at the site: “I should have liked not only to have killed the greatest number possible,” he wrote.
Too old for more marching, Ruffin raised Southern morale with public appearances, and donated savings to President Jefferson Davis’ cash-strapped administration. But he watched in bitter disappointment as Union armies slowly gained the upper hand. By the time Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Ruffin had lost his beloved property and eight of 11 children.
On June 18, 1865, the old radical penned an angry diary entry: “I here declare my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule—to all political, social and business connection with the Yankees and to the Yankee race. Would that I could impress these sentiments, in their full force, on every living Southerner and bequeath them to every one yet to be born! May such sentiments be held universally in the outraged and down-trodden South, though in silence and stillness, until the now far-distant day shall arrive for just retribution for Yankee usurpation, oppression and atrocious outrages, and for deliverance and vengeance for the now ruined, subjugated and enslaved Southern States!
“…And now with my latest writing and utterance, and with what will be near my latest breath, I here repeat and would willingly proclaim my unmitigated hatred to yankee rule–to all political, social and business connections with Yankees, and the perfidious, malignant and vile Yankee race.”
The 71-year-old champion of Southern independence then pulled out a gun and committed suicide.
Originally published in the November 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.