- Historic Sites
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
Ruffin was bitter and angry now. All his work, he felt, had been for naught. He had to be the complete leader to all farmers or nothing at all. When the Virginia State Board of Agriculture, which he had helped organize and on which he served as first corresponding secretary, seemed unappreciative of his status, he resigned in a huff.
In 1842, hurt by the stigma now attached to his name, he leaped at the opportunity offered him by Governor James H. Hammond of South Carolina to serve as that state’s agricultural surveyor. For a year he busied himself roaming South Carolina to locate marl beds, analyze soil, and discuss scientific farming. He thought little of his work there, but Hammond later hailed him as “one of the few benefactors of mankind whose services have been appreciated by the world, while still living.” Ruffin, however, remained unconvinced, although reports from the Palmetto State after his departure revealed an exciting spurt of interest in scientific farming, guided strongly by the summary of the year’s work, his Report of the Commencement and Progress of the Agricultural Survey of South Carolina , a landmark in the state’s agricultural history.
His success in South Carolina did little to ease his hurt feelings upon his return to Virginia. Rather than remain among his old planter acquaintances, he moved northward to a new estate on the Pamunkey River in Hanover County. His face creased into a sneer when his neighbors, before his departure, presented him with silverware and drank to the toast: “Edmund Ruffin, the pioneer of marling, the author of An Essay on Calcareous Manures and editor of the Farmers’ Register —Imperishable works of genius and industry.”
Appropriately enough, he called his new estate Marlbourne. It was a horribly run-down plantation, but it was what he wanted in order to hide from public view. It was also his grand opportunity to put all his theories to work. First he got rid of his white supervisor and raised Jem Sykes, a slave, to the post of first assistant. Next, instead of using plain marl, he spread almost 300,000 bushels of “greensand” onto his land during the next five years. The greensand contained potash and phosphoric acid, in addition to marl. He installed covered drains, carefully rotated his crops, and used the newfangled McCormick reapers and threshing machines. Soon visitors were crowding his land and watching with awe as he ran the trim farm on a clockwork basis. From a first-year loss, his profits rose to more than 20 per cent of his investment in his fifth year.
After his spectacular success at Marlbourne he returned once more to his former life of speaking and writing. In 1845 a new Virginia State Agricultural Society was established and Ruffin was named president. He declined this honor because he was too close to his publishing debacle. However, in 1852, when the society honored him with the toast, “Not Edmund Ruffin of Prince George, of Petersburg, of Hanover, but Edmund Ruffin of Virginia,” he finally accepted the presidency. The encomium was belated, but nevertheless appreciated.
By 1850 his standing as the South’s farmer supreme was beyond challenge. Early in that decade the governor of Virginia in his annual message pointed out that, chiefly owing to marling, the value of land in the Tidewater district had risen by more than seventeen million dollars between 1838 and 1850. Although he did not mention Ruffin by name, it was obvious to his listeners that Ruffin was being honored.
Ruffin was sixty in 1854. He had fought the good fight and had emerged as one of his state’s leading citizens. He agreed to serve as agricultural commissioner of Virginia that year, although he said it would not be for long. He was still writing articles on farming, but he hoped to taper off on that work, too. He pushed avidly for the establishment of agricultural colleges as state-supported institutions as if this were to be his crowning effort; then in 1855 he published a nostalgic collection of his fourteen best essays on agriculture. All indications were that he would soon retire.
He would have, too, had not the slavery issue embroiled the nation. The man who had helped save the institution of slavery could not let it disappear now under the blast of Abolitionist threats. Sickly and tired as he was, he determined to save the South a second time.
The sense of power from his farming success goaded him on to take a strong lead in the secession fight. With new inspiration, his vigor expanded; he became rabid on the subjects of slavery and secession. With an exultant smile in his eyes, he could prove from esoteric Biblical sources the sanctified nature of slavery. When these were exhausted he could proceed to endless economic and sociological arguments. It was the northern factory worker who was really a slave, he pointed out. He wrote frenziedly for various newspapers and magazines, revealing a vile hatred of northerners. Even Webster’s dictionary was the “embodiment of the Yankee language and authority for Yankee deviation from Standard English.”