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Edmund Ruffin
January 5, 1794 Southern agriculturist, writer and nationalistic leader Edmund Ruffin born, Prince George County, Virginia
December 17, 1860 South Carolina Secessionist Convention is called to order. The convention decides unanimously to secede from the United States and appoints a committee to draw up the needed documents. South Carolina
  Confederate Order of Secession
April 12, 1861
April 13, 1861
Beginning at 4:30 am on the 12th and continuing until the morning of the 13th, Confederate batteries along the shore of Charleston Harbor fire on Fort Sumter under the command of Major Robert Anderson. Anderson arranges a surrender with Texas Senator Louis Wigfall on the morning of the 13th. South Carolina
  P. G. T. Beauregard
  Fort Sumter
  Civil War Firsts
  Robert Anderson
June 17, 1865 Fire-eater Edmund Ruffin dies of his own hand at his plantation Redmoor, Amelia County, Virginia


Edmund Ruffin

Agriculturalist and secessionist Virginian Edmund Ruffin
Secessionist Edmund Ruffin
Born into a planter lifestyle along the James River in southern Virginia, Edmund Ruffin was expelled from William and Mary College just before the War of 1812. He served in the Army during the war, but did not see any action. His inability to study (mostly due to alcohol and the charms of a young lady named Susan Travis) did not indicate an inability to learn - he read vociferously about agriculture, favoring English theory. After his father died, Ruffin inherited an estate at Coggin's Bluff and married Miss Travis.

He initially dismissed the work of John Taylor (Arator) but the work of Humphrey Davy (Elements of Agricultural Chemistry) intrigued him. In a test on his own plantation he dramatically increased crop yields by adding marl (A mixture of clays, calcium and magnesium carbonates, and remnants of shells used as fertilizer for lime-deficient soils) from the tidewater area. Then he combined elements of Davy's and Taylor's work to increase crop yields by nearly 50% and reduce soil erosion.

In 1823 he was elected a Virginia senator, resigning after serving three years of a four-year term. During the Election of 1824 Ruffin expressed displeasure with each candidate running, Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun and William Crawford for expanding the power of the government through advocating tariffs, internal improvement, or federal banks. Unhappy with political life, he returned to farming and writing, publishing a book on the value of marl in 1832, then starting the Farmer's Register in 1833.

He began using his magazine to express political viewpoints (for example, Ruffin maintained that the movement to popular election was never intended by the founding fathers), sometimes alienating both politicians and farmers. In 1840 he supported Whig William Henry Harrison and John Tyler, who was a friend. Edmund Ruffin founded a separate magazine, Southern Magazine and Monthly Review in January, 1841, but both fell victim to recession and political intrigue.

James H. Hammond brought Edmund Ruffin to South Carolina, where the Virginian preached the benefits of technological advancement and searched for marl beds. While in South Carolina Ruffin developed two model plantations, at Red Cliff and Silver Bluff, that practiced, among other things, crop rotation (note: This crop rotation was akin to Charles Townsend's 18th century theory, not George Washington Carver's revolutionary concept some forty years later). Ruffin's push for advanced agricultural techniques actually reduced the South's need for slaves.

Edmund Ruffin moved into the forefront of the Southern nationalistic movement following the death of his friend John C. Calhoun in 1850, although he was not a national politician. Ruffin was a writer with a dramatic flair who turned to paper and pencil and an evangelistic speaking style to make his pro-slavery case. In Debow's review, Agricultural, commercial, industrial progress and resources, Ruffin was a frequent contributor, both for his agricultural expertise and his pro-slavery sentiment.

Before the Nashville Convention Ruffin championed the cause of an independent South, along with other Virginia extremists like M. R. H. Garnett, James Mason and Beverly Tucker. Virginia would be the only Upper South state to send delegates to the convention.

Following the Compromise of 1850 his radical talk abated and he returned to advocating the advancement of the introduction of new technologies and old fashion learning to increase yields on Virginia farms. He advocated the use of marl, better plowing techniques to reduce soil runoff and crop rotation. For the depleted tobacco farms of southeastern Virginia he helped introduce guano, lime, bone and superphosates to replenish the soil.

By 1856, though, his writings had returned to avocation of an independent southern nation and a defense of slavery:

Slavery is not intrinsically right, it is only circumstantially right under a set state of circumstances. The right rule is freedom, but slavery is an exception to that rule; and if right, right as all exceptions are, according to the circumstances which surround it.


Unlike many of the Southern extremists, Ruffin was realistic. When the Lecompton Constitution came up before Congress, Ruffin admitted the document was the work of a minority and the slavery clause would be "repealed within a year." At the time, pro-Union feelings were running high in Virginia - former Whigs H. H. Stuart and John M. Botts had been organizing Unionists in the state under the guidance of Alexander Stevens. It was during this time that Ruffin became convinced that the South could not depend on the Democratic party to protect its "rights."

In 1858 Ruffin founded the "League of United Southerners," which backed the concept of an independent southern nation. William Yancey, another fire-eater, is sometimes given credit as a "co-founder" - this is wrong. Even Yancey referred to it as "Ruffin's League." In 1859, Ruffin rushed to Harper's Ferry when talk of additional revolt arose. He took 15 of the pikes that Brown intended to use to arm the slaves and sent them to the Southern governors with the label "Sample of the favors designed for us by our Northern brethren."

In June, 1860 Edmond Ruffin published a futuristic novel, Anticipations of the Future, to Serve as Lesson for the Present Time correctly predicting Abraham Lincoln winning the election of 1860, followed by Republican William Seward in 1864. The potential reelection of Seward in 1868 brings secession, then a war that takes place in Virginia. The North enlists "Negro armies," and violence racks Northern cities before a truce leaves an independent South. At the end of the book Ruffin offers a second outcome. The South secedes immediately and "the great cities of Boston, New York and Philadelphia... (are) sacked and burnt, and their wealthiest inhabitants massacred, by their own destitute, vicious and desperate population..."

Convinced that Lincoln would win the election, Ruffin began a heavy schedule of pro-Secession speeches in October, 1860, including a noted speech in the South Carolina statehouse in Columbia that included the following statement:

I have studied the question now before the country for years. It has been the one great idea of my life. The defense of the South, I verily believe, is only to be secured through the lead of South Carolina. Old as I am, I have come here to join her in that lead. I wish Virginia was as ready as South Carolina, but, unfortunately, she is not. But the first drop of blood spilled on the soil of South Carolina will bring Virginia and every other Southern State to her side.


As war approached, Ruffin returned to Charleston, this time to serve in the Army at the age of 74. When asked what unit he belonged to he responded, "The one with a vacancy." He was added to South Carolina's Palmetto Guards and is generally believed to have fired the first shot at Fort Sumter, although this is questioned. From the Official Records, P. G. T. Beauregard said:

The venerable and gallant Edmund Ruffin, of Virginia, was at the Iron battery, and fired many guns, undergoing every fatigue and sharing the hardships at the battery with the youngest of the Palmettoes.


Captain G. B. Cuthbert, who was in direct command of the Palmetto Guards on Morris Island, spelled out Edmund Ruffin's role in the battle:

The mortar battery at Cummings Point opened fire on Fort Sumter in its turn, after the signal shell from Fort Johnson, having been preceded by the mortar batteries on Sullivan’s Island and the mortar battery of the Marion Artillery.

At the dawn of day the Iron battery commenced its work of demolition. The first shell from columbiad No. 1, fired by the venerable Edmund Ruffin, of Virginia, burst directly upon the parapet of the southwest angle of the fort.


Cuthbert, in a later report at the battle of Manassas, makes the following statement:

Many of the soldiers threw their arms into the creek, and everything indicated the greatest possible panic. The venerable Edmund Ruffin, who fired the first gun at Fort Sumter, who, as a volunteer in the Palmetto Guard, shared the fatigues and dangers of the retreat from Fairfax Court-House, and gallantly fought through the day at Manassas fired the first gun at the retreating column of the enemy, which resulted in this extraordinary capture.


The historic discrepancy comes over the "signal shot" from Johnson Island and from Cuthbert's statement, "...having been preceded by the mortar batteries on Sullivan’s Island and the mortar battery of the Marion Artillery." South Carolina had an interest in Ruffin firing the first shot since he was from Virginia and they had not yet seceded. So, was Ruffin's the first shot or not? You decide.

After the battle was over, in a surrender negotiated by fellow fire-eater Louis Trezevant Wigfall, Edmund Ruffin led the Palmetto Guards into the fort as color-bearer. Local papers rang the praise of Virginia's son claiming, "That ball fired at Sumter by Edmund Ruffin will do more for the cause of secession in Virginia than volumes of stump speeches." The gun Ruffin fired has been known as the secession gun ever since.

After returning to Richmond, Ruffin addressed the Virginia congress, one of two speakers rallying the body to vote for secession. While he did not get what he wanted (Virginia voted to hold a popular vote on the secession document), his powerful sermon-like speech did sway votes for secession.

As tensions began to build in western Virginia and elsewhere, Ruffin rejoined the Palmetto Guard at Fairfax Courthouse. He sent the following to Jefferson Davis in the new capital of Richmond, Virginia:

RICHMOND, VA., May 16, 1861.
President DAVIS:
For salvation of our cause come immediately and assume military command.
EDMUND RUFFIN.

Ruffin did participate in the withdrawal from Fairfax Courthouse as Irvin McDowell advanced. During the battle of First Bull Run - First Manassas he is credited with firing the gun that turned the Union retreat into a stampede, but Ruffin quickly ended his practice of going into battle. He returned to Danville, Virginia. With the Surrender at Appomattox, Northern forces began occupying the South.

The Union Army destroyed his property at Coggin’s Point and his beloved estate on the Pamulkey River, Marlbourne. On Saturday, June 17th, 1865, Ruffin ate breakfast, visited with some guests, then went upstairs and committed suicide using his gun and a forked stick. His suicide note said, "I cannot survive the liberties of my country."

His son, Edmund Ruffin, Jr., returned to Marlbourne following his father's death where he grew oats, wheat and corn and built a new house. In 1866 he began raising cotton.

Additional Reading

Reminiscences of forts Sumter and Moultrie in 1860-'61, by Abner Doubleday.


Links appearing on this page:

Abraham Lincoln
Andrew Jackson
Election of 1824
First Bull Run - First Manassas
Fort Sumter
Harper's Ferry
Henry Clay
Jefferson Davis
John C. Calhoun
John Quincy Adams
Nashville Convention
P. G. T. Beauregard
Richmond, Virginia
Surrender at Appomattox
William Crawford
fire-eater

Edmund Ruffin was added in 2005



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