Edmund Ruffin

An 1860 photograph of an older man with long white hair

Courtesy: Library Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-cwpbh-00486.

Born in Prince George’s County, Virginia, in 1794, Edmund Ruffin (1794–1865) became known as a militant defender of the slaveholding South. At the age of nineteen, Ruffin moved with his new wife, Susan Hutchings Travis, to a tobacco plantation on the James River inherited from his grandfather and worked by slave labor. He first came to public attention in the early 1830s as a prominent voice for agricultural reform, having conducted experiments with soil improvement and crop rotation. Briefly serving as a Virginia state senator, Ruffin became increasingly strident in his defense of slavery—he owned over two hundred slaves—and was an early proponent of secession. In the aftermath of John Brown’s 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry, Ruffin was intent on seeing Brown hanged and traveled to Charles Town, Virginia, to witness the execution. The following year, Ruffin joined with fellow “fire-eater” William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama to push the southern wing of the Democratic party to take a more uncompromising stand on slavery. In April 1861 Ruffin once again placed himself in the middle of the action, this time in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. Contrary to the oft-repeated myth, Ruffin did not fire the first Confederate shot on Fort Sumter, but he did light a cannon shot from Fort Morris and thus participated in the opening battle of the Civil War.