Edmund Ruffin

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Edmund Ruffin
Edmund Ruffin. Fired the 1st shot in the Late War. Killed himself at close of War., ca. 1861 - NARA - 530493.tif
ca. 1861
Born (1794-01-05)January 5, 1794
Prince George County, Virginia, U.S.
Died June 18, 1865(1865-06-18) (aged 71)
Amelia County, Virginia, U.S.
Cause of death Suicide by gunshot
Resting place Edmund Ruffin Plantation
Education College of William and Mary
Occupation Planter, Agronomist
Known for Revolutionizing Southern Agriculture, his claim to have fired the first shot of the Civil War
Religion Episcopalian
Spouse(s) Susan Hutchings Travis
Parent(s) George Ruffin, Jane Lucas Ruffin
Relatives William Randolph

Edmund Ruffin (January 5, 1794 – June 18, 1865) was a wealthy Virginia planter and slaveholder who in the 1850s was a political activist known as one of the Fire-Eaters. He advocated states' rights and justified slavery, arguing for secession years before the Civil War. Ruffin was credited as "firing the first shot of the war" at the Battle of Fort Sumter; he served as a Confederate soldier despite his advanced age. When the war ended in Southern defeat in 1865, he committed suicide rather than submit to "Yankee rule."[1]

Ruffin's chief legacy is his pioneering work in methods to preserve and improve soil productivity; he recommended crop rotation and additions to restore soils exhausted from tobacco monoculture. Early in his career, he studied bogs and swamps to learn how to correct soil acidity. He published essays and in 1832 a book on his findings for improving soils. He has become known as "the father of soil science" in the United States.[2] He was among a circle of intellectuals who sought reformation in the South.[3]

He also wrote books on slavery and the economy of the South, and a comparison between conditions of slavery and those of free labor in the North. In the last three decades before the Civil War, such pro-slavery writings received more attention than his agricultural work. Ruffin wrote in his diary in January 1859, "I have had more notice taken on my late pamphlet [on slavery] than on anything I ever wrote before."[4] In 1989, at a time of increased scholarly attention to southern intellectuals, his diary was edited and published posthumously by Louisiana State University Press. The Edmund Ruffin Plantation, also known as Marlbourne, has been designated as a National Historic Landmark.

Antebellum life[edit]

Ruffin was born at Evelynton Plantation just east of Hopewell in Prince George County, Virginia. A descendant of William Randolph and his wife Mary, he was born into Virginia's planter class aristocracy and inherited large tracts of land along the James River. Ruffin served as a private in the Virginia Militia during the War of 1812, but did not see battle. In 1813, he married Susan Hutchings Travis of Williamsburg; the couple moved to a farm Ruffin inherited from his grandfather, at Coggin's Point, along the James River in Prince George County. They had eleven children before Susan Ruffin died in 1846.[5]

In his 20s Ruffin began experimenting with using marl to rejuvenate the soil on his land along the James River that was worn out after more than a century of tobacco monoculture. In 1843, he purchased another plantation, Marlbourne, in Hanover County near Richmond, in the Virginia Tidewater. The land had long been cultivated for tobacco, and finding the soil exhausted, he became a serious agronomist who helped revolutionize southern agriculture. He was a pioneer in promoting conservation and soil rejuvenation.[2]

He became one of a circle of intellectuals who worked for reformation of various aspects of the South. His colleagues included Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, George Frederick Holmes, James Henry Hammond, and William Gilmore Simms, a poet, novelist and historian.[3] Their interests spanned southern society, and they promoted stewardship as a justification for slavery, influenced by the evangelical tradition that generated reform in the North as well. They published their recommendations and "jeremiads" in short-lived periodicals and felt unjustly neglected by fellow Southerners.[6]

For a time in the 1840s, Ruffin was editor of the Farmers Register. He did serious studies of the possibility of using lime to raise pH in peat soils. Ruffin presented a paper, later expanded into an article for American Farmer, and eventually as the highly influential book, An Essay on Calcareous Manures (1852). He explained how applications of calcareous earths (marl) had reduced soil acidity and improved yields of mixed crops of corn and wheat on his land, which had been worn out by two centuries of tobacco monoculture.[7] He has become known as the "father of soil science" in the United States.[2]

During the pre-war years, Ruffin also studied the origin of bogs and published several detailed descriptions of the Dismal and Blackwater swamps in Virginia. Ruffin would later be better known for his substantive contributions to agriculture rather than his claim to have fired the first shot of the Civil War at Fort Sumter.[8] Specifically, he aided the Southern economy by proposing new and ingenious ways to rotate and fertilize tobacco crops, such that fields could be used over and over to grow the valuable commodity plant. But his advice on the value of marl was not widely followed. In an 1852 address he warned planters that not paying attention to their soil could lead to ruin, and the South did suffer from exhausted soils in the postwar years.[8]

Political activism[edit]

Ruffin was a strong supporter of slavery and the southern way of life. He became increasingly outspoken as sectional hostilities heightened in the 1850s, and was known as one of the Fire-Eaters who contributed to the start of the Civil War. He urged secession years before the war. Noting how his audience had changed, he wrote in his diary in January 1859, "I have had more notice taken on my late pamphlet [on slavery] than on anything I ever wrote before."[4]

In 1859 Ruffin traveled to attend the execution of John Brown at Charles Town, Virginia (later West Virginia), following the abolitionist's abortive slave revolt at Harper's Ferry earlier that year. To gain access to the event, Ruffin joined the Virginia Military Institute cadet corps and, donning a borrowed overcoat and carrying arms, the aging, white-haired, secessionist marched into Charles Town with the young cadets who had been ordered up from Lexington.

Ruffin purchased several of the pikes captured from Brown and his forces; these had been intended to arm slaves in a general uprising. Ruffin sent a pike to each of the governors of the slave-holding states as proof of violent Northern enmity against the South and slavery.[1][page needed]

In 1860, Ruffin published his book, Anticipations of the Future, to Serve as Lessons for the Present Time. Written in the form of letters to the London Times from 1864 to 1870 from a fictional English resident in the United States, he played out the result of the election of Republican candidates in the United States. He predicted an American Civil War in 1868 following the re-election of President William H. Seward, which would ultimately result in a victory for Southern states. Although most of his predictions were wrong, Ruffin did correctly predict that the war would start with a southern attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina.[9]

Civil War[edit]

A standard photograph of Edmund Ruffin, displayed at Fort Sumter National Monument in Charleston, South Carolina

After the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860, Ruffin traveled to South Carolina, where he had previously worked as an agronomist, hoping to encourage secession. (Swanberg says that his fellow Virginians found his views too extreme.) He wrote to his son, "The time since I have been here has been the happiest of my life."[10] Ruffin is credited with firing one of the first shots from Morris Island against the federally held Fort Sumter, which was the military event that catalyzed war. (The first shot against Fort Sumter was a signal shot from Fort Johnson under the command of Captain George S.James.)[11][12] He was also the first person to enter Fort Sumter after it fell to Southern forces.[1]

During the Civil War with Union forces threatening Richmond, Edmund Ruffin left Marlborne for Beechwood, the Prince George County home of his son, Edmund Ruffin Jr. In June 1864 after the Army of the Potomac under general Ulysses S. Grant stealthily crossed the James River into Prince George over a pontoon bridge a few miles east of Beechwood, Ruffin allegedly escaped by hiding under a load of hay in a wagon driven by one of his slaves. He fled west to the relative safety of another son's home in Confederate held territory west of Petersburg. Several of Ruffin's plantations were occupied and plundered by Union forces during the war.[13] His plantation on Coggins Point was the scene of the Beefsteak Raid during the Siege of Petersburg. When the war ended with southern defeat, Ruffin was crushed. Increasingly despondent after the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House in 1865, along with the other surrenders that were to follow, Ruffin decided to commit suicide. On June 18, 1865, while staying with his son and daughter-in-law at Redmoor in Amelia County, Ruffin went up to his study with a rifle and a forked stick. He was called away to greet visitors at the front door.

After they left, Ruffin returned to write a final diary entry:

And now with my latest writing and utterance, and with what will [be] near to my latest breath, I here repeat, & would willingly proclaim, my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule—to all political, social and business connections with Yankees, & to the perfidious, malignant, & vile Yankee race.[14]:230

Ruffin put the rifle muzzle in his mouth and used the forked stick to manipulate the trigger. The percussion cap went off without firing the rifle, and the noise alerted Ruffin's daughter-in-law. But by the time she and his son reached his room, Ruffin had reloaded the rifle and fired a fatal shot.[14]:230 His body was returned to Marlbourne, his plantation in Hanover County, Virginia, for burial.

Legacy and honors[edit]

He is known as the "father of soil sciences" in the United States, and his writings have been influential in soil conservation.

The Edmund Ruffin Plantation, also known as Marlbourne, is designated as a National Historic Landmark.



  • Detzer, David R. (2001). Allegiance: Fort Sumter, Charleston and the Beginning of the Civil War. New York: Harcourt. 
  • Mitchell, Betty L. (1981). Edmund Ruffin, a Biography. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. 
  • Ruffin, Edmund (2006). Jack Temple Kirby, ed. Nature's Management: Writings on Landscape and Reform, 1822-1859. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press. 
  • Scheter, Barnet (2005). The Devil's Own Work. New York, NY: Walker & Company. 
  • Swanberg, A.W. (1960). First Blood: The Story of Fort Sumter. New York: Longmans. 


  1. ^ a b c Swanberg, W.A., First Blood/ The Story of Fort Sumter, Longmans, 1960
  2. ^ a b c Ruffin, Edmund. Nature's Management: Writings on Landscape and Reform, 1822-1859, edited by Jack Temple Kirby, University of Georgia Press, 2006
  3. ^ a b Drew Gilpin Faust, A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, 1840-1860, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977
  4. ^ a b Drew Gilpin Faust, The Ideology of Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Antebellum South, 1830--1860 (Google Ebook), LSU Press, 1981
  5. ^ http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Ruffin_Edmund_1794-1865
  6. ^ Charles B. Dew, "Review: 'A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, 1840-1860' by Drew Gilpin Faust", The Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 4 (April 1980), pp. 445-447
  7. ^ Steven Stoll, Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth Century America (New York, 2002)
  8. ^ a b Steven Stoll, Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth Century America (New York, 2002), pp. 165-166
  9. ^ Ruffin, E, Anticipations of the Future to Serve as Lessons for the Present Time, J. W. Randolph, 1860
  10. ^ "swanberg"
  11. ^ Ruffin fired from the Iron Battery. "Daily Globe Oct 20, 1884 .p.4
  12. ^ The Princeton Union September 9, 1897 P.8
  13. ^ http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Ruffin_Edmund_1794-1865,/
  14. ^ a b Walther, Eric (1992). The Fire-Eaters. Louisiana State University Press. pp. 228–. ISBN 0-8071-1775-7. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Allmendinger, David F. (1990). Ruffin : Family and Reform in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-504415-0. 
  • Craven, Avery (1982) [1932]. Edmund Ruffin, southerner : a study in secession (Reprint. Originally published: New York : D. Appleton, 1932. ed.). Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 0-8071-0104-4. 
  • Ruffin, Edmund. Nature's Management: Writings on Landscape and Reform, 1822-1859, edited by Jack Temple Kirby, University of Georgia Press, 2006
  • Mathew, William M. (1988). Edmund Ruffin and the Crisis of Slavery in the Old South: The Failure of Agricultural Reform. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 0-8203-1011-5. 
  • Mitchell, Betty L. (circa 1981). Edmund Ruffin, a Biography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-30876-3
  • Scarborough, William K., “Propagandists for Secession: Edmund Ruffin of Virginia and Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 112 (July–Oct. 2011), 126–38.

External links[edit]