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Fire-eating Farmer Of The Confederacy
At Sumter Edmund Ruffin unwittingly pushed toward ruin the region whose agricultural economy he had revived
December 1957 | Volume 9, Issue 1
In October, 1818, a pale, spindle-legged young Virginia planter stood before the Prince George Agricultural Society and nervously read an essay he had prepared on calcareous manures. Edmund Ruffin was 24 then, small and sickly, with a preposterously long mane that hung far below his shoulders. His delivery was poor, but his eyes burned with zeal and impatience as he told new truths about the use of lime. When he finished speaking, he thanked his listeners and went home. It had been, he disappointedly believed, an academic exercise.
But Ruffin was wrong. Reprinted in a magazine in 1821, this obscure young man’s essay in time swept the South and made his name a household word. Expanded into a book, it ran to five editions in the next three decades. Farmers who scoffed at “book agriculture” clamored for it. They began beseeching him for answers to all their farming ills. Former President John Tyler, nearing the sunset of a long career, acclaimed emotionally: “You have done more good to the country than all our political great men put together.”
Why all this fuss about Ruffin? At its root lay the agricultural condition of the South. By the end of the eighteenth century, the soil of the Tidewater district of Virginia had been exhausted, and up and down the Atlantic regions of the South there were similar signs of disaster.
Soil given over for more than a century to intensive single-crop cultivation was no longer productive. In the years following the War of 181 a, some of the oldest families began to desert ancestral plantations in a headlong search for rich river bottom land on the frontier. Wagons filled with slaves and piled high with household possessions rutted the narrow roads leading westward. Surveying the situation, John Randolph of Roanoke forecast with his usual sarcasm that the day was not far distant when masters would run away from slaves and be advertised for in the newspapers.
Upon this desperate scene came the wispy figure of Ruffin with a plan for stemming the tide. The scheme was to revive agriculture by scientific farming and thus keep the southern elite from diffusing itself on the wide frontier. Pouring his mind and body into the task, he worked feverishly creating model farms, teaching, coaxing, and threatening southern farmers through an enormous output of speeches and writing until his methods were accepted. Through almost half a century of activity, he was to emerge as the antebellum South’s greatest agricidtural scientist and as the father of soil chemistry in America. His pioneering theories on bacteriological activities in soil were several decades ahead of his time. So were his proposals for agricultural colleges and a system of county agents for advising farmers.
But there was a tail as well as a head to Ruffin’s coin. Slowly his grand purpose began to crystallize. He would prevent the death knell of slavery and make the South strong enough to repel any attacks on its way of life. Whether by manure or guns, it mattered ‘not, so long as the South was saved. Where the scientist left off, the wildest of fire-eaters and secessionists took over. Yankees were as poisonous to Ruffin as sterile soil. He would wipe them off the face of the earth; and he did what he could at the John Brown affair, Fort Sumter, and Manassas. He was the little man who was there, pushing and clawing his beloved South to disaster. He claimed to have fired the first shot of the War Between the States as well as the shot that brought on the Yankee stampede from the First Ma- nassas. No other doughty warrior could claim as much.
There was nothing in Ruffin’s youth to indicate the role he would play in later years. In fact, all indications were that he would never attain the life for which he was being reared—that of a pleasure-loving planter along the fames River. Ruffin was the feeblest of infants when he was born in 1794 to a gentleman Virginia landowner named George Ruffin. Although he managed to survive infancy, he was such a puny child that he was pampered and petted as if his days were numbered. He showed no sign of a venturesome spirit, no bent for science, although at ten he proudly announced that he had waded through all of Shakespeare’s plays.
Not until he was sixteen was he permitted to leave home. Frail or not, upon the insistence of his parents that he get an education, he enrolled at the College of William and Mary at Williamsburg. Here he revealed such an enormous knack for neglecting his studies that the college authorities ousted him during his first year. Back home once more, he developed a voracious appetite for novels and won a minor reputation for intemperate drinking. At eighteen, to prove he was not a weakling despite his 100 pounds, he enlisted as a private in the first muster of the War of 1812. He managed to survive six months of drill and camp duty, but he grew tired of the boring regimentation and resigned.
It took his father’s death and his own marriage to shake Ruffin loose. When he inherited an estate at Coggin’s Point on the fames River and brought to it his new bride, Susan Travis of Williamsburg, young Ruffin felt obliged for the first time to look beyond his nose. The normal routine of the neighboring planter aristocracy was to ignore farm operations entirely. White supervisors were hired to run the farms and rule the slaves, while the planter-aristocrats engaged freely in politics or in gentlemanly law practice amid a fairly constant round of fox hunts, lavish dinners, and dances.
With a poor formal education and a sudden distaste for the social graces, Ruffin foresaw an idle life ahead unless he found some way to occupy his time. But what was there to do?