Ruffin was what we could call a fire-eater in every respect of the word. He hated Yankees, supported state rights, and was vehemently pro-slavery.
Before things started heating up that would eventually lead to war, Ruffin made his mark as an agriculturalist – a pretty prominent one, at that. He came from a noted land-owning family, and his talents in the agricultural realm served him well in his pre-war career. In 1833 he founded a journal: The Farmer’s Register, which brought agricultural innovations to a wide range of farmers. He also worked diligently to counter soil exhaustion with great success.
But during these years Ruffin became more and more radicalized. By the 1850s, intent on protecting the right to slave property in the South, he became convinced that the slave-holding states would eventually have to secede to protect their property. John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry just added fuel to Ruffin’s fire. When Brown was hanged, Ruffin made his way to Charles Town, Virginia to witness the execution (he posed as a VMI cadet at the age of 65 – civilians were not permitted to watch the execution). From here he acquired several of Brown’s pikes meant to be used in a slave revolt and sent them to southern governors as a reminder of northern aggression.
But the fun really began for Ruffin in 1861. He somehow found himself in Charleston, South Carolina on April 12 and joined in with the troops as they initiated the firing on Fort Sumter. He claimed to have fired the first shot himself. Well, we can’t really be sure of that, but we do know that he was there when the firing began, so I guess that is close enough.
The collapse of the Confederacy naturally affected Ruffin in profound ways. A man without a country, he committed suicide on June 17, 1865. These days you can hear all kinds of stories about Ruffin – that he stated “I will never live under Yankee rule,” or that he wrapped himself in the Confederate flag before doing the deed. Whether true or not, stories seem to romanticize this wiry gray headed secessionist in ways that turn him into a hero of sorts…at least for neo-Confederates.
We do not hear much else about Ruffin, except that he fired the first and quite possibly the last – self inflicted – shot of the war. He even gets a little placard by his grave. The marker highlights Ruffin’s agricultural work and the first shot story, but curiously omits his suicide. Would such an admission of defeat be too much for the modern tourist to handle? I often wonder why they left that little factoid out. It just seems kind of important to me.
PS – I am kind of featuring his vibe…I aspire to look this cool when I’m in my 60s