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Edmund Ruffin

Edmund Ruffin (January 5, 1794 – June 17, 1865) was a wealthy plantation owner and slaveholder, a Confederate soldier, and an 1850s political activist. He advocated states' rights, secession, and slavery and was described by opponents as one of the Fire-Eaters. He was an ardent supporter of the Confederacy and a longstanding enemy of the North. He argued for secession for many years before the Civil War. In 1859 he attended the execution of John Brown at Charles Town. In order to witness 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 a number of the pikes with which Brown had planned to arm slaves as part of his abortive slave revolt, which started and finished at Harper's Ferry earlier that year. Ruffin sent one to the governors of all the slave-holding states as proof of violent Northern enmity against the South and slavery.[1] He was in South Carolina during the period immediately before its secession during the election of 1860 (according to Swanberg, because his fellow Virginians found him too extreme), writing to his son, "The time since I have been here has been the happiest of my life." [2] Because of his strong secessionist views and the widely held belief that he fired the first shot of the Battle of Fort Sumter, Ruffin is credited as "firing the first shot of the Civil War."

Pre-war life[]

Ruffin was born at Evergreen Plantation in Prince George County, Virginia. A descendant of William Randolph, he was born into Virginia's planter class. He was a farmer and agronomist who helped revolutionize agriculture. For a time, he was editor of the Farmers Register and investigated at some length 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 into a highly influential book, An Essay on Calcareous Manures in which he explained how applications of calcareous earths ([marl]) had reduced soil acidity and improved yields of corn and wheat on his land that had been worn out by two centuries of tobacco monoculture. During the pre-war years, he was interested in the origin of bogs and published several detailed descriptions of the Dismal and Blackwater Swamps. Ruffin would later be better known for his contributions to agriculture and not so much for the claim that he fired the first shot of the Civil War. 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 plant.

In 1860, Ruffin wrote Anticipations of the Future, to Serve as Lessons for the Present Time. In it, he pictured what he apprehended would be the result of the election of Republican candidates. 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 correctly predicted that the war would start with an attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina.[1]

Civil War[]

Another standard photograph of Edmund Ruffin -- at Fort Sumter National Monument in Charleston, South Carolina

As the sectional hostilities which led to the Civil War grew in the 1850s, Ruffin left Virginia for South Carolina, where from 1842 to 1843 he had served as an Agricultural and Geological Surveyor, conducting a comprehensive study of the soils in the low country, as he was angry that Virginia had not been the first state to secede from the Union. Ruffin fired one of the first shots on Fort Sumter. He was also the first one to enter Fort Sumter after it fell.[citation needed]

Increasingly despondent after the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House in 1865, Ruffin decided to commit suicide. On June 17, 1865, Ruffin went up to his study with a rifle and a forked stick. He paused to add to his diary a final malediction against "the perfidious Yankee people." Then he was called away to greet visitors who had arrived at the front door. After they left, Ruffin returned to his study and wrote 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.[3]:230

Immediately after writing this, 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 already reloaded the rifle and fired a fatal shot.[3]:230


  • Ruffin, Edmund (1989) [1856-1865] (3 v.). The diary of Edmund Ruffin. Edited, with an introd. and notes, by William Kauffman Scarborough. With a foreword by Avery Craven.. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 0-8071-0948-7. 


  • Detzer, David R. (2001). "Allegiance: Fort Sumter, Charleston and the Beginning of the Civil War". Harcourt 
  • Mitchell, Betty L. (1981). "Edmund Ruffin, a Biography". Indiana University Press 
  • Scheter, Barnet (2005). "The Devil's Own Work". Walker & Company 
  • Swanberg, A.W. (1960). "First Blood:The Story of Fort Sumter". Longmans 


  1. 1.0 1.1 Swanberg, W.A., First Blood The Story of Fort Sumter, Longmans, 1960 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "name" defined multiple times with different content
  2. Swanberg
  3. 3.0 3.1 Walther, Eric (1992). The Fire-Eaters. Louisiana State University Press. pp. 228-. ISBN 0-8071-1775-7. 

Further reading[]

  • 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. 
  • 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[]

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