Like the Fire Eaters in general, Edmund Ruffin is often misunderstood in our modern world. Unionist historians typically focus on his defense of slavery, his views on race and the honour he received of firing the first shot on Federally-occupied Fort Sumter. What is often lost in this analysis is the classical world view of Ruffin and his fellow early radical secessionists. Theirs was a world quite unlike modern America. They were agrarians, anti-egalitarians, regionalists and naturalists. But even this list of descriptions doesn’t really get at the root of what they advanced. The best way I know how to sum up the Fire Eaters’ is to say that they stood for a classical civilisation here in North America. This is to be contrasted to world view of New Englanders which embraced “progress” as its ultimate goal and god. To understand the classical view at the heart of Southern identity one can investigate the ideals of the patrician class of republican Romans or those like them in ancient Greece, old Egypt and the other related civilisations of antiquity. These were the values that Ruffin and his ilk wished to see raised as a bulwark against the expansionist and “Progressive” North here in an independent South.
Edmund Ruffinwas born in 1794 and educated in Virginia, including a brief period at the College of William and Mary. For most of his life, Ruffin was a farmer and a renowned agricultural reformer. Experiments on his farm convinced him that fertilizers, crop rotation, drainage, and good plowing could revitalize the declining soil of his native state.
From the 1820s onward, Ruffin published his findings, edited an agricultural journal, lectured, and organized agricultural societies. In the 1850s, he became president and commissioner of the Virginia State Agricultural Society.
Increasingly, however, Ruffin turned his attention in the 1850s to politics, especially the defense of slavery and secession. Although he had earlier expressed some doubts about slavery and opened the pages of his agricultural journal to arguments about colonization, by the 1850s Ruffin had become a staunch proponent of slavery and of the racial inferiority of blacks. He joined the ranks of fire-eating southern radicals advocating a separate southern nation to protect slavery and the southern way of life. Secession became as great a reform cause as agricultural improvement. Both would rejuvenate the South.
Ruffin’s desire to push the secessionist movement towards a confrontation with the North brought him to Charleston during the Sumter crisis. He intended to take his stand with the Confederacy, and he hoped events would drive his native state, Virginia, out of the Union. His ardent southern nationalism made him a hero of southern radicals. He was invited to attend three secession conventions, and given the honor of firing one of the first batteries against Fort Sumter.
As the Confederacy’s fortunes ebbed during the war, however, Ruffin grew distraught. Plagued by ill health, family misfortunes, and the rapid collapse of Confederate forces in 1865, Ruffin proclaimed “unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule,” and on June 17, 1865, committed suicide. His act, sometimes considered the “last shot” of the Civil War, became identified with the Confederacy’s defeat and a symbol of the lost cause. His suicide was interpreted as an expression of the Southern code of honor, the refusal to accept a life in defeat.