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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?
To while away his time, he took to walking about his estate. He discussed crops with his supervisor, watched the slaves in the fields, examined the half-stunted grain and the patches of barren ground. And what he observed appalled him.
His soil, like that of his neighbors, was played out. All these planters were leading a lil’e based entirely on economic unreality; all were laced with a proposition that, in time, would impoverish them. Yet, whether from ignorance or despair, they maintained a curtain of silence. Watching his neighbors pursue their spendthrift activities, Ru(Hn raged: “Like the inhabitants of a city ravaged by the plague, they thought more of present enjoyment than of providing for lutine wants; and there prevailed generally habits ol idleness and improvidence, of pleasure seeking and of neglect of business.” He found them a sorry lot; they provided him with a mirror of his own earlier life. When he looked into the possibility of selling his estate, he ivas astounded to learn that “there was scarcely a proprietor in my neighborhood … who did not desire to sell his land, and who was prevented only by the impossibility of finding a purchaser. … All wished to sell, none to buy.”
Lacking a visible alternative, Rutlin decided to save his inheritance, although he had not the vaguest notion of how to do it. The first glimmering of what he might do came in 1813 when The Arntor , the agricultural essays of John Taylor of Caroline, appeared in book form.
Hungrily, he plowed through The Arntor to learn Taylor’s secrets. The ideas, he found, were not too difficult to understand. Taylor proclaimed that plowing under vegetable matter before it began to rot would yield an excellent manure for revitaling soil. He urged raising clover for this purpose, a deep plowing system for all crops, and a bar against permitting cattle to gra/e in the fields. If this were all there were to successful farming, Ruffin reasoned, his plantation would soon be profitable.
However, following Taylor’s precepts, lie found that after the first season his land was still unproductive. Nor was the second or the third season any better. “No part of my poor land was more productive than when my labors commenced,” he admitted ruefully. As for Taylor’s methods, he concluded that they had “proved either profitless, entirely useless, or absolutely and in some cases greatly injurious.”
Nevertheless, he felt that he could not give up. There were other agriculturalists who might be of aid. In his search he picked up a copy of Sir Humphrey Davy’s Elements of Agricultural Chemistry . Although Ruffin knew no chemistry, he was taken with one line in the book: “If on washing a sterile soil it is found to contain the salt of iron, or any other acid matter, it may be ameliorated by the application of quick-lime.” Davy einphasi/ed that lime would convert poisonous sulphates into good manure.
There was first the basic problem of how to go about testing soil for chemicals. In spite of his ignorance of even the rudiments of chemistry, Ruffin plunged into the task of educating himself. He devoured book after book in order to build up understanding.
Unfortunately, when Ruffin finally tested his soil lor salts of iron, he found none. If none were present, he brooded, then Davy’s theory was down the drain. Perhaps there was something else in the soil that made his land sterile. If it were not mineral, could it be vegetable?
And from this he finally deduced his own theory. There had to be vegetable acids in the soil that made his land sterile. Neutrali/ing such acidity, lime would convert these poisons into manure and thus build up the soil’s fertility. Alter this was accomplished, John Taylor’s idea of using vegetable manures would bring even greater fertility.
Ruflin set about to make careful scientific experiments to prove his theory. When he found large deposits of fossil-shell marl on his land, his plan crystallized. Marl, abundant in Tidewater Virginia, was chemically a mixture of clay and carbonate of lime.
On a strip of land of two and a half acres, he applied about 400 bushels of marl. For purposes of comparison, he planted this section and an adjoining unmarled section with corn. He repeated this process on similar fields planted with wheat. The marl’s success was quickly demonstrated. The marl-treated cornfield produced a 45 per cent higher yield than its neighbor. The luxuriant growth of wheat on the marled field showed an even more striking difference.
A gigantic undertaking now began to form in Ruffin’s mind. He would broaden his experiment the next year, and if his efforts again proved successful the entire South must be informed of his discovery. There would no longer be any reason for the forced migration of the planter class.
Despite a variety of ailments, he stepped up his pace. He kept detailed records of soil analysis, the use of marl, vegetable manuring, crop developments, and farming costs. At the end of the season, when his expectations were more than fulfilled, he rushed to tell the Prince George Agricultural Society about his work. And when there was no immediate rejoicing he returned to Coggin’s Point to broaden his experiments further.
As his profits increased, Ruffin turned his plantation into a show place. He wisely believed that others would be more receptive, to theories seen in successful application. Despite a poor speaking voice and a painful shyness, he took every opportunity to explain his work at meetings of farmers. He talked about soil bacteria, a subject that seemed wholly implausible in his day. He began writing articles for newspapers and magazines and chicled readers for not using marl. He admitted that lime had been used in Europe for centuries, but there had been no tangible theory behind its use. Ko one before him had mentioned the harmful vegetable acids that had to be neutralized.
It would be a gross error to say that Rtiffin’s propagandizing met with early success and that he was catapulted to fame. Some old planter families considered him a meddlesome crackpot. “Ruffin’s folly,” they labeled his marl. Neighboring planters held their sides from laughter as the young upstart tried to explain his theory. When he talked about his own original method for determining how much carbonate of lime lay in any given soil, they sneered to his i’ace. And when they watched the heavy loads of books from abroad being delivered to Beechwood Mansion, they winked to each other. Ruffiii never forgave them for their derision: “Most farmers are determined not to understand anything, however simple it may be, which relates to chemistry,” he charged.
But the indifference and scorn he met only fired his determination. The days and the years passed. In 1821 the American Farmer reprinted his essay on marl. The editors called it the “first systematic attempt … to examine into the real composition of the soils.” Here was his first step forward. Farmers from far off read it. Out of curiosity many wrote him for further information. Others found reason to travel past Coggin’s Point to see for themselves.
Politics seemed a good way to push himself faster. In 1823 he won election to the Virginia Senate, and he served three years at Williamsburg with the hope of spreading his farming doctrines. But he found politics a poor springboard for what he had in mind. The frenzied national election of 1824 obliterated all local issues, and for some time to come its repercussions reaped the major share of newspaper interest. When he left politics Riiffin vowed never to have anything further to do with public olfice.
In 1833 he started his own monthly publication, the Farmers’ Register. As his guide he took the saying from Swift, ”… that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together.”
His magazine proved a whopping success. Within a year it became the farming bible from Georgia to Virginia, even though he charged five dollars a year. His was the coaxing, explaining, and counseling voice. He wrote nearly half of each 64-page issue and took up every subject of interest to farmers. He proved a reliable debunker of farming myths and inundated his readers with the latest information from agricultural scientists in this country and abroad. He weeded out all references to politics as outside the pale. Carried away by the response to his efforts, he learned “I can with pleasure write rapidly for twelve or more hours in the day or night and until it is necessary to rest my cramped right hand.”
It was not only about marl that he wrote, although the printing of his original essay, expanded into a book in 1832, brought on a great public interest in marl. He spread the gospel of crop rotation, proper plowing, the use of animal and vegetable manures, reclamation of swampland, proper drainage systems, and the economic use of slave labor. Almost all of what he offered came from personal experience and had the ring of authority. But, because he earnestly believed that farming was an entirely serious business, there was not a spark of humor in anything he wrote.
A new era in farming was beginning to arise under his guidance, and Ruffin might have spent his lifetime as an editor. But when banking reforms grew into a national issue after the Panic of 1837, he could not control his hot temper. As far as he was concerned, bankers were natural enemies of farmers. Short statements began cropping up in the Farmers’ Register about the banking class, which he vilified as a storehouse of “lying, fraud and swindling.” When some readers protested this outpouring, he launched a separate magazine, the Bank Reformer , in 1841. Here he hammered away at the prevalent banking system as a “paper-money system … to enable those who have earned or accumulated nothing by labor to exchange this nothing for the something and often the everything earned by the labor of others.”
With this new publishing enterprise, Ruffin ran headlong into the encrusted political leadership of Virginia. They found his views dangerous and moved to destroy him. First a dribble and then an avalanche of subscription cancellations came to the Farmers’ Register office. The loss of revenue forced Ruffin to abandon both publications.
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.”
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.”
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.