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Photo by John Henley; Ruffin image courtesy Virginia Historical Society
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Fred LeNaire Kelly Jr. visits his great-great-great grandfather’s gravesite on the Marlbourne plantation.
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Marlbourne, located off Spring Run Road in Hanover County
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Edmund Ruffin is pictured in 1851 with children Julian, Ella, Charles and Mildred. One daughter, Agnes, was disowned by Ruffin when she married a doctor who was often in debt.
At 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 26, 1859, Edmund Ruffin boarded the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac train to Washington, D.C. Late that afternoon, the renowned agricultural theorist, pragmatic farmer and political agitator changed trains in Washington, taking the Baltimore & Ohio line past rolling hills and farms into the rocky escarpments surrounding the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.
Ruffin had left Marlbourne, his plantation in Hanover County, to see a man hang. Not just any man; Ruffin wanted to see the death of the notorious abolitionist John Brown. His execution in Charlestown would bring face-to-face two prophets who, from opposing sides in the slavery debate, fought for years to begin the Civil War. Brown would never see the war. Ruffin would become a catalyst for it.
In the end, the War Between the States would cost Ruffin his fortune, much of his family, his health and, finally, his life. The price of commitment was high for Ruffin, as it was for Brown. Both men — intractable, unyielding, ferociously devoted to their separate causes — pushed the nation into the bloodiest war of its history. And both wanted it no other way.
Ruffin and Brown were in many ways mirror images of each other, ideological opposites engaged in a life-and-death struggle for the fate of the Union. Where Brown argued for slavery's abolishment, Ruffin argued for its permanence. Where Brown agitated for slave revolt in the South, Ruffin campaigned for a war waged by slaveholders against the abolitionist North. Where Brown saw God's will defied by the institution of slavery, Ruffin saw divine support for human bondage.
Several weeks before his execution, Brown had led a raid in Harper's Ferry to procure weapons and incite a slave uprising. Thirteen men died, including two of Brown's sons. The uprising never happened, and Brown and his conspirators were caught. The stubbornly pugnacious Ruffin may have disapproved of Brown's goals, but he admired his ferocity. He wrote in his diary that he respected Brown's "animal courage" and understood Brown's "complete fearlessness & insensibility to danger & death" in service to a cause.
Once Brown's insurrection failed, Ruffin foresaw the beginning of the battle for Southern independence that he had advocated. On the way to the execution, he visited Harper's Ferry to survey, as he described it, "the seat of war" — the catalyst for the violent conflict that he'd begun to fear would not happen in his lifetime.
Ruffin joined Alfred W. Barbour, superintendent of the U.S. arsenal in Harper's Ferry, for a tour of the bullet-pocked engine house where Brown had made his stand. The 1,500 seven-foot-long metal pikes Brown had intended to use for arming slaves enraptured Ruffin. He persuaded Barbour to give him one.
Ruffin departed Harper's Ferry on a train filled with Virginia Military Institute (VMI) cadets bound for Charlestown, where the hanging was to take place. When he received one of Brown's pikes, he inscribed on the handle: "Sample of the favors designed for us by our Northern brethren."
Charlestown was tense. Virginia authorities, fearing abolitionist agitators, had filled the village with men and guns. "It is a stirring time," Ruffin wrote on Nov. 27, 1859. Rumors of alarms … are still coming in." Trains were searched. Travelers turned back included four Ohio congressmen. Already renowned for his secessionist proselytizing, Ruffin relished the warlike atmosphere and paraded in the streets, brandishing his pike. People pointed him out. Members of Richmond and Petersburg militias saluted him. And he was mistakenly arrested by guardsmen.
Ruffin's path to the Dec. 2 hanging was blocked by a rule restricting the witnessing of executions to military personnel. Still, there were ways around it. The celebrated actor John Wilkes Booth, also eager to see Brown die, had finagled his way into the ranks of the Richmond Grays volunteer infantry. Ruffin beseeched Francis H. Smith, VMI's superintendent and the state militia colonel in command of activities in Harper's Ferry, to let him view the hanging. Smith agreed and arranged for the 64-year-old Ruffin to borrow the weapons and uniform overcoat of a private.
On this clear and warm day, the VMI company stood about 50 yards from the gallows. At about 11 a.m., Brown arrived in a small, open wagon, seated on his own coffin. The assembled spectators maintained respectful silence as Brown mounted the scaffold. Ruffin noted, with some admiration, that Brown's "movements & manner gave no evidence of his being either terrified or concerned."
Finally the moment came. After the short drop, Brown's bound hands and legs convulsed, and Ruffin watched as a breeze caused his body to "swing like a pendulum."
Shortly thereafter, Ruffin acquired 15 more of Brown's pikes. He inscribed them to the Southern governors and asked Virginia's administration to distribute the strange weapons. The officials ignored him. Undeterred, he sent them to the governors himself, urging them to place the weapons in their legislative chambers. Romances and Epics
Nineteenth-century Virginia was inextricably bound up in two institutions: slavery and a tradition of independence. Its leadership was not quite three generations distant from the American Revolution. "The Revolution was glorified then," says Fred LeNaire Kelly Jr., Edmund Ruffin's great-great-great grandson. "The secessionists thought it sounded like a pretty good idea: If you feel you're under oppression, then you take your things and form your own country."
The man who would personify that doctrine entered life on Jan. 5, 1794, at Evergreen Plantation in Prince George County, and from birth his life was marked by death. Ruffin's father, paternal grandfather, and paternal great-grandfather were the only siblings to survive in their families. While Ruffin attended the College of William and Mary, his grandfather, Edmund, who served four terms in the Virginia House of Delegates, and his father, George, among the commonwealth's largest slaveholders, died within three years of each other.
By age 19, Ruffin was an orphan and his immediate family consisted only of his stepmother and half siblings. His godfather and mentor was Thomas Cocke, a Prince George County farmer. A sickly youth, Ruffin had been tutored at home and developed a fondness for Shakespeare and Thackeray. He adored Sir Walter Scott's epic romances and the poems of Byron.
In 1813 he inherited Coggin's Point, his grandfather's Prince George County plantation on a finger of land jutting into the James River near present-day Hopewell. He'd never been to the farm; his grandfather hadn't visited it in 20 years. The place and its 50 slaves were strangers to him. He was 19 years old and knew nothing about farming.
After the inheritance, Ruffin married Susan Hutchings Travis, another orphan, and the couple built a long marriage. (Before her death in 1846, they had 11 children, nine of whom survived childhood.) Ruffin's good fortune was spoiled by one daunting problem: The soil at Coggin's Point could grow no crops. It was "wasted and barren," wrote Ruffin's biographer, David F. Allmendinger Jr. Thus, Ruffin's first major battle was with his own land.
Charles Dickens, during an 1842 visit to Virginia, described the land below Fredericksburg as "exhausted … now little better than a sandy desert overgrown with trees." There was, he wrote, "an air of ruin and decay." By then, many Virginians had abandoned the depleted farmland, seeking livelihoods elsewhere. But Ruffin refused to give up. Self-educated in agriculture, he applied a process of rigorous trial and error to his farming.
Finally in 1818, after five years of research, he found Sir Humphrey David's Elements of Agricultural Chemistry . Through David's book, Ruffin realized that depleted Tidewater soil could be invigorated by using calcareous manure — lime — to reduce its acidity. The fossil-shell deposits were called "marl," and he excavated them from pits. He used marl and other methods to double his crop, increasing corn and rice production by as much as 200 percent.
When others tried Ruffin's methods, they failed, perhaps because they did not have dozens of slaves to assist them, as Ruffin did, or enough time to employ the labor-intensive strategy. His neighbors regarded Ruffin as a "meddlesome crackpot," who sought to upset agricultural traditions with "book-farming," according to biographer Betty L. Mitchell. Even Thomas Cocke, Ruffin's mentor, called his marl pit "Ruffin's Folly."
But Ruffin redoubled his efforts. He made meticulous studies of marl methodologies and published them. At last, some farming reformers noticed. The Baltimore editor of the American Farmer proclaimed that "every intelligent cultivator of the soil" needed to read Ruffin. Ruffin began receiving letters from people throughout the South, beseeching him for advice on marling. He had been vindicated, and his renown helped him get elected as Virginia state senator (1823-1827) representing seven southeast counties, including Prince George, Isle of Wight and Southampton.
Although Ruffin's views on agronomy were reformist, even revolutionary, he was an unapologetic enthusiast of philosophers who advocated slavery and supported the aristocracy. Jack Temple Kirby, in an introduction to a collection of Ruffin essays, Nature's Management , describes him as an "admiring reader of ancient and modern antidemocratic texts" who "asserted the inferiority of Africans and sought to prove his claim through social science." Ruffin decried Thomas Jefferson as a "dangerous & abominable" idealist, who had "done more harm to his countrymen than perhaps any other politician."
In the summer of 1831, Ruffin irritated his neighbors during what he called the "community insanity" following the slave revolt led by Nat Turner in Southampton County. Ruffin, sensing an injustice,
publicly appealed for the pardon of a Prince George County slave accused of following Turner. He argued that the slave should not be executed but returned to his master. He circulated petitions to spare the man's life, but neighbors slammed doors in his face. The slave eventually was sent out of Virginia. A Suicide
Ruffin rebounded with the publication of An Essay On Calcareous Manures , a book that further detailed his work with marl. It went through five printings and received praise throughout the nation and in Great Britain. Thus encouraged, in 1833 he launched the Farmers' Register, which articulated his agricultural theories and provided practical farming advice. The publication did well enough in the United States and England so that by 1835 he could divide his properties, Lear-like, into six shares for his children, though his daughter Agnes' holdings were placed with two other siblings to administer for her. He gave his slaves to his oldest son Edmund Jr. and moved to Petersburg.
"Basically, he wanted to retire," Ruffin descendant Kelly says. "He was of that age, and he wanted to get on to something else."
Death, always Ruffin's shadow, returned. In February 1840, Ruffin's mentor, the reclusive Thomas Cocke, spoke to Ruffin of suicide. He was 64 and widowed; his children were away, and he suffered from a variety of ailments, among them, arthritis and deafness. Ruffin responded that suicide was the equivalent of temporary insanity, and Cocke retorted, "In that you are altogether mistaken."
Finally, after months of secret preparations, Cocke went out for a regular morning hunting trip on Feb. 22. He went into an isolated thicket near a ravine, removing his shoe to reveal a sock in which he'd cut a hole so his big toe could emerge. He braced himself against a huge oak tree, put the barrel in his mouth, and used his toe to pull the trigger.
The next morning, Ruffin collected blackened pieces of his godfather's skull and brains from underneath the oak. Grieving the loss of his mentor, Ruffin wrote an 11-page account of his death. He confided that as he wrote "alone & in the depth of night, [I] feel almost afraid to look around" for fear of seeing his dead friend demanding to know why Ruffin hadn't done more to save him.
Ruffin continued his contrarian battles. In the pages of the Farmers' Register, his son Julian's Southern Review, and his own Bank Reformer, he advocated for a range of causes, including equal pay for women in the workplace and raising salaries of college professors. He editorialized on the evils of paper currency. He demanded bank reform through abolishing paper money, curbing excessive loans, controlling speculative ventures and reining in fluctuating currency values. He claimed that bankers controlling the legislature were stalling progressive agricultural policies.
As his vitriol increased, Farmers' Register subscriptions plummeted. Eventually, Ruffin stopped its publication in 1842. That same year, he was invited to South Carolina to undertake an agricultural survey of the state. He issued an 1843 report with recommendations for improving the state's output. The report met with the same skepticism that his early marl theories did, and its recommendations were ignored.
Death and Glory
Vexed, Ruffin moved to a 1,000-acre plantation along the Pamunkey River in Hanover County, which he named Marlbourne. Forcing the land to conform to his will, Ruffin ordered his slaves to reclaim marshland, spread marl over barren soil, rotate crops and harvest, using the innovative McCormick reaper. By 1848 he had doubled the farm's production.
Four years later, he was elected president of the Virginia Agricultural Society. Typically, his stubbornness turned victory into conflict. In 1858, when Richmond wouldn't agree to the society's financial terms for the annual state fair, Ruffin moved the fair to Petersburg. As a result, the society split, and a rival Central Agricultural Society of Virginia formed.
The same year, Ruffin attended the Southern Commercial Convention in Montgomery, Ala. He and South Carolinian William Lowndes Yancey formed the League of United Southerners, a 19th-century think tank for state's rights. Ruffin took to the cause. He became a "fire-eater," speaking stridently throughout Virginia and the South.
But while his public stock rose, Ruffin suffered one personal loss after another. Seven of the eight women most closely related to him died during the years from 1846 to 1863. They included his wife, Susan, his five daughters — three died within months of each other in 1855 — and a favorite daughter-in-law. His wife complained of pain in her wrist, which ultimately swept through her body until she was paralyzed and, as Ruffin explained, lost "every bodily power." She suffered for a year from the malady, diagnosed as "neuralgic rheumatism. " In February 1846, she was buried at Marlbourne.
He lost his daughter, Agnes, not through death but through his intolerance. She defied her father by marrying Thomas Stanley Beckwith, a country doctor of little means. Their union gave Agnes "a dozen children, unpaid bills and little else," wrote biographer Mitchell. Ruffin disdained Beckwith, comparing him to Mr. Micawber, the always cheerful and persistently in-debt Dickens character. "There's no indication that he was anything less than an honorable man," Kelly says. "Agnes tried all the way to the very end to get back into her father's graces."
Unyielding, Ruffin visited his grandchildren only when Beckwith was away. "No Employment So Pleasant"
In 1856, Ruffin threw himself into writing a diary, which eventually grew to 25 manuscript volumes with 4,100 pages — dense handwritten prose, littered with ampersands and the famous names of his day. The manuscripts, now at the Library of Congress, provide an astounding insider/outsider perspective on a vanished world.
The journals reveal that Ruffin began to worry that the South would never free itself from Yankee tyranny. William Kaufman Scarborough, who edited Ruffin's journals, wrote, "So the old warrior bided his time, all the while fretting and fuming and sinking deeper into despair. So discouraged had he become by the autumn of 1859 that he was actually on the verge of suicide."
Then came John Brown.
After witnessing Brown's hanging, Ruffin carried his pike with pride at public gatherings. He spoke ever more passionately about secession, and in 1860 he published a turgid, 416-page novel, Anticipations of the Future , which envisioned a brief civil war from 1867 to 1868 ending in Southern victory. In the preposterous climax, Southern slaves rejected their liberation, turning against abolitionists.
He hoped the novel would be an antidote to 1852's Uncle Tom's Cabin , but it received little notice. The "mortifying truth," he admitted in his journal, was that his book was ignored "even in the most Southern states, where if nowhere else, I expected notice & approval."
The election of Abraham Lincoln and Unionist anxiety over U.S. forts in Charleston Harbor excited Ruffin, even as Virginia's reluctance to join the secessionist movement exasperated him. He traveled to Charleston, S.C., in November 1860 and was greeted by cheering crowds, military bands and invitations to address the legislature. He became at age 67 "an inexhaustible emissary for secession," wrote biographer Mitchell. Historian Nelson Lankford wrote: "With a wild flowing gray mane, the dour agrarian reformer looked the part of a biblical patriarch dispensing justice with fire and brimstone."
In the spring of 1861, the moment that Ruffin had awaited finally arrived. In March, he received an honorary placement with the Palmetto Guards stationed at Morris' Island, S.C., and confronting Fort Sumter. Ruffin declined officers' accommodations, sleeping instead on a straw pallet as privates did. At about 4:30 a.m., April 12, a signaling mortar shell rocketed over the harbor and burst in the night. It was, Lankford wrote, a "fleeting pyrotechnic omen of woe."
At his post, Ruffin yanked the lanyard that fired a 64-pound Columbiad cannon. He stepped back and watched his shell streak into Sumter's northeast parapet. He may not have fired the first shot of the war. But at least he had been the first to fire from the battery at Morris' Island. Capt. Abner Doubleday — a military leader stationed at Fort Sumter better known today for his association with baseball — was jarred awake by a shell, which, he said later "probably came with Mr. Ruffin's compliments."
Ruffin returned to Richmond a hero. Photographs of him in Palmetto Guard uniform circulated throughout the South like a secessionist pin-up. In July 1861, he traveled to the first battle at Bull Run, where he fired a cannon and probably killed a few Yankees. Ruffin described the battle's blood and gore in macabre detail. Ever the chivalrous grandee, Ruffin interceded when Confederate soldiers taunted the Northern wounded, giving them water and comfort.
On May 31, 1862, the eldest son of Ruffin's daughter, Agnes, died at the Battle of Seven Pines. Grandson Julian was the first of Ruffin's kin to die in the war, and Ruffin couldn't sleep after he heard the news; nor could he bring himself to write a letter of condolence to the parents who'd fallen from his favor.
He shuttled endlessly between his plantations, dodging the advancing and retreating Union forces. Seeking a more intimate understanding of the Confederate government, he once slept on a cot in a rented room on Richmond's Clay Street.
In the summer of 1862 his Prince George County plantation, since renamed Beechwood, became a camp for Union soldiers from Michigan and Pennsylvania. One soldier, writing home to his sister, described the "abode of wealth and taste." There were magnificent shade trees, tall corn, a thick lawn, winding walkways and twisting avenues through forests. Here "even the slave quarters were attractive," the soldier marveled.
Ruffin's dwelling held a library of thousands of books and a delicate musical instrument, a harmonicon. Before the Union troops left, they broke the china, ripped up mattresses and smashed furniture. When Ruffin returned, he found messages scrawled on the walls with tobacco juice and charcoal: "This house belonged to a Ruffinly son of a bitch," and, "You old cuss, it is a pity you go unhanged." Some of the more vindictive insults remained on the back of Beechwood's doors until they were scrubbed clean in the 1930s by descendants who, says Kelly, "didn't want that language in their house."
In January 1863 his favored daughter, Mildred Sayre, died. Agnes sent her father a letter, mourning Mildred's death and pleading for reconciliation. Ruffin returned Agnes' letter with the brusque statement, "I have no daughter left alive."
Ruffin's slaves then began abandoning his farms and refusing to work. The old secessionist felt overwhelmed. On Jan. 20, 1863, he wrote, "It seems to me, that, but for the accident of Fort Sumter, my patriotic labors & efforts would have been unknown & my name almost forgotten."
All three of Ruffin's sons had joined the Confederate army, though none stayed for long. Early on, Edwin Jr., a 47-year-old remarried widower with six children, organized a volunteer unit with Thomas, his 18-year-old son. Son Charles, 23, whom Ruffin considered a wastrel, rose in his father's estimation by joining the Palmetto Guards in Charleston, S.C. A favored son, Julian, 40, joined despite Ruffin's urging that he hire someone to enlist for him. The disease and filth of military life disappointed Julian, and at the end of his 90-day enlistment he returned home.
Edwin Jr. left the military in May 1862. Charles, meanwhile, avoided service by getting himself admitted into hospitals; eventually he deserted. His father harangued him by letter, urging him to do his duty and, if need be, die in battle. Ruffin had publicly called for the execution of deserters, and he told Charles' commanding officer to make no exception. Charles briefly rejoined the Palmetto Guards, then vanished from the army.
Julian, at age 42, was drafted back into service. He was killed May 16, 1864, at Drewry's Bluff, shot between the eyes. Ruffin confessed in his journal that he wanted to shout and cry out but could not manage to weep. He wrote, "age & decay have withered & dried up my affection …. & hardened my heart." His only solace was that Julian's death "happened on the battle ground."
"My Unmitigated Hatred"
After the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865, Ruffin moved into an upstairs bedroom at Redmoor, his son Edmund Jr.'s newly acquired Amelia County estate. The Confederate loss, and his personal ones, weighed on Ruffin. Growing infirmities made life more difficult. "He was running out of reasons to live, as far as he was concerned," says Kelly.
He planned his suicide with care. After breakfast on June 17, 1865, he went upstairs, where his family assumed he would write in his journal. There, he loaded a musket with what was known as a "buck-and-ball," a Minié ball packed with buckshot. He selected a forked stick to trigger the gun. He was a interrupted when unexpected visitors arrived at the house. He waited and wrote: "And now, with my latest writing & utterance, & with what will be my latest breath, I here repeat & would willingly proclaim, my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule, to all political, social and business connection with Yankees, & to the perfidious, malignant & vile Yankee race."
After the guests left, he placed the barrel in his mouth and manipulated the stick to pull the trigger. The cap popped, but the gun didn't fire. Hearing the noise, Edmund Jr.'s wife ran to get her husband. Ruffin reloaded and fired again.
He was found sitting upright and missing half his head, just like Thomas Cocke 25 years earlier. A few days later Edmund Jr. wrote to his sons: "The Yankees killed your grandfather."
Ruffin left instructions for his burial. He insisted that he be placed in the earth at Marlbourne without a coffin so that his body would be more swiftly absorbed by the Virginia soil.