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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
Loud hurrahs went up for Ruffin. The South ecstatically hailed the old man, who had become a patriotic symbol, while the New York Post stormed: “A piece of the first hemp … stretched in South Carolina should be kept for venerable and blood-thirsty Ruffian .” Affectionately treated as the man of the hour wherever he traveled in the South, Ruffin affected a studied trick of halting upon being recognized by cheering crowds and bowing his head slowly and aloofly in acknowledgment. The claim by a Beauregard aide that the first shot of the war was actually the supposed signal shot from Fort Johnson, fired by Captain George S. James, and not the Morris Island blast by Ruffin, did nothing to dim Ruffin’s new reputation.
When the First Battle of Manassas loomed in the summer of 1861, Ruffin determined to see action there, too. He found the Palmetto Guards at Fairfax Courthouse, not far from Washington, and for old times sake they let him join up again as a “temporary” private. Old and bent now, he dug trenches and tried to keep up with the younger men in their marches. The biscuits they chewed were too hard for his teeth, and since his tent was open at both ends the rain drenched him thoroughly. Secretly he hoped that he would be killed in battle, for he thought this would be a fitting end to his career. If not, he hoped that he would prove a hero.
And a hero of sorts he became, too. When the Union troops retreated toward Centreville, Ruffin was among the Rebels along their route. In a sense, as important as the shot he fired at Fort Sumter was another that he made on the Suspension Bridge over Cub Run. In the words of his compatriots, it was this shot that turned the Yankee retreat into a stampede.
Excitedly, Ruffin wrote in his diary:
“Our advance guard gave the information of the enemy being ahead and near to our front. Our front, to which Kemper’s artillery had previously been charged, was at the crest of a long hill, down the gentle and uniform descent of which the turnpike road extended in a perfectly straight course to the Suspension Bridge over Cub Run. … The line of our march in pursuit, along the turnpike road, had been the same track of one large body of the routed fleeing Yankees. These had reached the bridge over Cub Run, and there filled the road with a closely packed crowd of soldiers, artillery trains, baggage wagons, ambulances, etc.
“The first wagon had just been driven upon the bridge to pass over when the first gun (my gun) was fired from Kemper’s battery. … Some of the shot from this first discharge struck one or more of the horses of the foremost wagon. In their pain and fright they suddenly turned, upset the wagon so as to barricade the whole width of the bridge and effectively forecluded any other wheel-carriages or horse from moving on. The whole mess of fugitives immediately got out of the track, and all escaped who could, on foot as quickly as possible. … Thus all the wagons and artillery were abandoned and everything else left by the terrified fugitives.”
The joy of the Manassas victory made Ruffin positive that the North would soon give up. But the cost of his own service in that battle ran high. He was deaf now from the artillery noise, and a nervous condition made reading or writing difficult. He was to suffer further pain when the Yankees did not ask for peace.
The war took on a grimness that he did not expect. It was to be a fight to the finish. He took to meeting troops at Richmond and other places in order to cheer them. His appearance stirred up excitement, but he no longer had a boastful twinkle in his eye. During the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, it was rumored that the North considered him an important prize of war. After the Yankees left, he visited his old home at Coggin’s Point and found it almost completely destroyed, with a mocking scrawl on a battered wall: “This house belonged to a Ruffmly son-of-a-bitch.”
The Second Battle of Manassas in August, 1862, revived his optimism. However, when news of Gettysburg came to him the following year, his belief in an ultimate victory for the South vanished. But he would not have her surrender. His mouth set grimly, he gave all but a pittance of his money to the Confederate treasury. In May, 1864, he suffered a crushing blow when he heard that Union forces had occupied his precious Marlbourne and destroyed his library.
The end was not far off. In April, 1865, he wrote in his diary: “Richmond was evacuated last night. All Virginia, and this eastern part certainly and speedily, will be occupied or over-run by the vindictive and atrocious enemy. …” Of his eleven children, only three were alive. A favorite son, Julian, had died in the battle of Drewry’s Bluff. His grief over Julian was great, even though he wrote in his diary that he had become devoid of all emotions. His entire life, he felt, had been for naught—marling and seceding, a strange combination.
The demise of the Confederacy with Lee’s surrender was too much for Ruffin. On June 18, 1865, he pulled out his diary for the last time. He was penniless, sick, hungry; his slaves had deserted him; his land was ruined. Badly palsied, he nevertheless wrote in a bold hand: “And now, with my latest writing and utterance, and with what will be near my latest breath, I hereby repeat and would willingly proclaim my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule—to all political, social and business connections with Yankees, and the perfidious, malignant and vile Yankee race.”
Laying down his pen, Ruffin picked up a pistol and shot himself. Like the Virginia fields he had raised to fertility and then had helped destroy by the gun, Ruffin’s life had completed its circle.