Fire-eating Farmer Of The Confederacy


The Kansas-Nebraska fight enraged Ruffin further, and after the election of Buchanan in 1856 he set his mind unswervingly on secession. Friendly railroad proprietors had begun slipping the old farmer free passes so that he could traverse the South in a call for secession. The lack of interest in some places appalled him. He wrote a series of four pungent articles which appeared in the popular DeBow’s Review on “Consequences of Abolition Agitation,” criticizing the South for lagging in its duty. To put an end to southern hesitation, Ruffin and the rabble-rousing William L. Yancey of Alabama organized the League of United Southerners in 1858. Yet, though several local clubs came into being, Ruffin could find no sustained interest in secession. Not until late in 1859 did he find cause for rejoicing. The occasion was John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry. He scribbled in his diary that it was a godsend “to stir the sluggish blood of the South.” Believing firmly that the Abolitionists would attempt to save Brown, he hurried to Harpers Ferry and then to Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia), to be at the center of this momentous event. If Brown were rescued before his execution, Ruffin argued, it “would be the immediate cause of separation of Southern and Northern states.”

He walked the streets of Charles Town before the date of execution, talking secession to every group he could buttonhole. He was like a drunk on a binge. He made some converts, but not enough to suit him. With a firm hand he gripped one of John Brown’s pikes and promenaded the streets holding it aloft and displaying a label he had attached to it: “Sample of the favors designed for us by our Northern Brethren.” Acquiring a larger supply of pikes, he sent one to each southern governor.

When the day of execution arrived on December 2 and no attempt to rescue Brown was forthcoming, Ruffin talked his way into a cadet corps in order to have a front row view of the hanging. In great and hungry detail, he wrote of the execution in his diary. For a moment, at least, he had found a northerner as fanatical as himself and he gushed about Brown’s “insensibility to danger and death.”

In 1860 he quickened his pace. He helped organize ladies’ shooting clubs as a civilian defense measure. To attract attention, he wore homespun of a poor quality, and on his hat a cockade. Leslie’s magazine hooted at him: “The old man goes about from Convention to Convention, a political Peter the Hermit preaching secession wherever he goes.” That year he wrote his last book, Anticipations of the Future . The work was a prophecy of events between 1864 and 1870. In it he had Lincoln serving one term and Seward succeeding him. He forecast that Lincoln would refrain from bullying the South, to prevent secession. But secession would come, said Ruffin, under Seward. In the imaginary war that followed, the North grew steadily weaker; the South stronger.

The year 1861 saw the culmination of all his dreams. Not only did he witness the outbreak of fighting between the South and North, but he also played a personal role in major events.

South Carolina had boldly seceded from the Union in December of 1860. When Ruffin heard that hotheads there planned to attack Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor unless it surrendered, he packed a cheese, some crackers, and extra clothes and hurried to Charleston. To anyone who would listen, he told of his disgust with his native Virginia for not seceding.

On April 9 at the Charleston wharf, a gaunt little Ruffin boarded a boat for Morris Island past Fort Sumter. He had heard that the Iron Battery there was to attack if Major Robert Anderson were foolish enough to try to hold Sumter for the Yankees. When Ruffin reached Morris Island, great cheering arose, and he was invited to join the Palmetto Guards. He was also promised the first shot of the coming war.

Ruffin described this momentous event of April 12 in his diary:

“By order of Gen. Beauregard, made known the afternoon of the nth, the attack was to be commenced by the first shot at the fort being fired by the Palmetto Guards and from the Iron Battery. In accepting and acting upon this highly appreciated compliment, that company had made me its instrument. …

“Before 4 A.M. the drums beat for parade, and our company was speedily on the march which they were to man. At 4:30 a signal shell was thrown from a mortar battery at Fort Johnson, which had been before ordered to be taken as the command for immediate attack. … The night before, when expecting to attack, Captain Cuthbert had notified me that his company requested of me to discharge the first cannon to be fired. … Of course I was highly gratified by the compliment, and delighted to perform the service—which I did. The shell struck the Fort at the northeast angle of the parapet.”