In a war we can know the aggressor, who gave the orders, which side unleashed the fist salvo but rarely do we know who actually fired the first shot but in the case of the American Civil War we know exactly who it was, Edmund Ruffin, and this one deed would write for him a page in American history for the cannon ball that he fired upon Fort Sumter began a war which like so many before and since was expected to be over with quickly but was in fact to last four long years, take over 700,000 lives, and change the country forever. But on that chilly April morning Edmund Ruffin fulfilled a dream – it was an act of violence that was the culmination of a lifelong mission.
Born on 5 January 1794, in Prince George County, Virginia, he was the son of a slave owner raised in comfort on the family plantation where recognised as a bright and intelligent young man he nonetheless neglected his education leaving College early to follow more personal interests, namely the pursuit of his future wife, Susan Travis.
In 1812, he volunteered to fight against the British but was disappointed not to see action before peace was concluded and was at a loss what to do with his life when his father died and he inherited the plantation at Tidewater, and suddenly he started to take life very seriously indeed.
He was already a Southern Nationalist and now he thought he could use his study and understanding of agriculture to realise his dream of Southern Independence by adopting a scientific approach to farming and writing a number of books on agronomy which were well received he became an adviser to the Virginia State Legislature.
He wanted the Southern States to become self-sufficient and saw the institution of slavery as an essential part of the process. He was convinced of the inferiority of the Negro race and had no qualms regarding slavery believing it their natural condition and that they should be grateful to the white man for taking on the responsibility for their well-being.
It was slavery that was to split North from South and form the battleground upon which arguments for State’s Rights and Southern Sovereignty were to be fought, and during the 1840’s the arguments for and against slavery became ever more bitter.
A strong abolitionist movement had emerged in the North and had been busy organising the Underground Railway, an escape route for runaway slaves, and establishing safe havens in Northern cities.
In response to this, on 18 September 1850, the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act that obliged the Law Enforcement Agencies to return runaway slaves at their owner’s request.
Edmund Ruffin opposed any attempt to change the Southerners right to own slaves, as far as he was concerned they were property and this was just another way that the North sought to impoverish the South and destroy their way of life. He used the Abolitionist Movement in the North as his reason for the South to secede from the Union and he campaigned vigorously in his home State of Virginia for just such an outcome.
By the 1850’s the arguments over slavery had turned violent.
The Mason-Dixon Line was widely acknowledged as the marker on the map that divided North from South and no region north of that line could claim Statehood with slavery in place.
Kansas, yet to be recognised as a State straddled this line and it was decided that the people resident there should choose whether to be slave or free.
This was a formula for chaos and the situation soon descended into violence as the Abolitionist Movement provided grants for anti-slavers to settle in the region whilst pro-slavers in neighbouring Missouri, known as Border Ruffians, were intent on driving them out.
“Bleeding Kansas”, as it was shortly to become known erupted into open warfare and the situation was only calmed following Federal intervention and the threat to use troops to restore order.
On 16 October 1859, the abolitionist John Brown, with 21 followers, seized the Federal Armoury at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. He intended to capture the arms that would be required for a general slave insurrection.
Surrounded and outnumbered two days later he was forced to surrender to troops led by Colonel Robert E Lee.
Despite the failure of his plan, to many Southerners this was all the proof they needed that Northerners intended to arm the slaves to murder them in their beds.
On 2 December 1859, John Brown was hanged and Edmund Ruffin attended the execution where he was impressed by the calm with which Brown met his fate but remained in no doubt that he deserved to die.
Discovering that Brown had a supply of spears with which to arm the slaves he insisted on having one of them, and he was to carry it with him for the rest of his life. He also procured others and sent one to each Southern Senator with a letter explaining they were the weapons upon which Northern Abolitionists intended to impale Southern women and children.
Following John Brown’s intended insurrection Southern Secessionists at last found an audience and Ruffin, who had long despaired of the constant prevarication, was spending more and more time in South Carolina, a hotbed of secession, where he could be guaranteed a more sympathetic audience.
He was one of the “Fire Eaters” those who demanded secession even at the expense of war.
These, he later said, were the happiest days of his life.
On 20 December 1860, South Carolina became the first State to secede from the Union and over the next two months they were to be joined by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. On 4 February 1861, the Confederate States of America was formed.
Edmund Ruffin was overjoyed, the South had God’s blessing, and it was the greatest day in the history of the world.
The recently elected Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, was determined that the Union would not be dissolved and on this there could be no compromise.
He did his best to resolve the situation but if it came to war then so be it.
The crisis was to come to a head in Charleston, South Carolina.
On 26 December 1860, Major Robert Anderson had removed his garrison of 127 men from the town and into Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour. By March 1861, the newly independent State of South Carolina was demanding its evacuation but President Lincoln ordered Anderson to remain where he was promising to both re-supply and reinforce him.
The clock was ticking, either Fort Sumter must fall or South Carolina’s sovereignty, and that of the Confederacy, would be fatally undermined.
On 11 April, General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard in command of the Charleston garrison sent emissaries to Anderson demanding his surrender by 04.00 the following morning or he would open fire. Anderson did not respond but instead removed his troops to places of shelter within the fort.
On 12 April, Edmund Ruffin was summoned to the site of the city’s coastal defences where in recognition of his many years service in the cause of Southern Independence he was granted the privilege of firing the first cannon and beginning the bombardment upon Fort Sumter. He was only too happy to oblige.
With the discharge of his cannon the American Civil War had begun, five days later his home State of Virginia also seceded from the Union.
On 21 July, the first major engagement of the war took place at Bull Run, also known as First Manassas, where despite his advanced age he was 67 at the time he was permitted to serve in a South Carolina Regiment in what was to be a resounding Confederate victory which saw them within two days unopposed march of Washington.
It seemed to Ruffin that he had fought in the decisive battle that would see Southern Independence become a reality by force of arms and he was proud and honoured to have been a part of it, but it wasn’t to be.
For the rest of the war Ruffin was to continue to write and exhort his fellow countrymen to ever greater efforts and sacrifices but as the military campaign began to sour, casualties rose, shortages increased, and inflation soared, the Fire Eaters became ever more marginalised.
In 1864, he returned to his plantation at Tidewater which had for a time been under Union occupation to find it partially destroyed, its crops untended, his slaves gone, his house looted and its walls covered in profane graffiti. The few Negroes who had remained were surly, uncooperative, and unwilling to work.
His lifelong dream it seemed had become a nightmare.
On 9 April 1865, General Robert E Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomatox Courthouse and with Lee’s surrender the Civil War effectively came to an end, though there were still other armies in the field and hostilities were to continue for a number of weeks.
As long as Confederates continued to fight then so would Edmund Ruffin, and he contemplated travelling to Texas to participate in a proposed guerrilla war against the Union but the news just kept getting worse.
On 26 April, the Army of Tennessee under General Joseph E Johnstone surrendered, on 10 May, the Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured, and on 26 May, General Kirby Smith surrendered his 43,000 troops, the last significant Confederate Army still under arms.
Earlier, on 13 May, the last engagement of the Civil War had been fought at Palmito Ranch in Texas – it had been a Confederate victory.
For the old Fire Eater it was all over.
On 17 June 1865, the 71 year old Edmund Ruffin wrote these last words in his diary:
“And now with my last writing and utterances, with what will be my last breath, I here repeat and 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.”
Moments later he draped himself in the Confederate flag, placed the barrel of a rifle into his mouth, and blew his brains out.
He had fired the first shot of the American Civil War.
He may well have fired the last.