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Edmund Ruffin (1794–1865)

Edmund Ruffin of Virginia was sixty-five at the time of John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry. Years before he had made his reputation as the South’s leading agricultural reformer. Now he was regarded as one of his region’s foremost agitators for secession. On December 2, 1859, he witnessed Brown's execution in Charles Town, Virginia. In a borrowed overcoat of the Virginia Military Institute, he stood shoulder to shoulder with the institute’s cadets, who were more than a little amused to have an old man with shaggy hair temporarily join their ranks. Afterward Ruffin arranged to have one of Brown’s pikes (intended for the use of slave insurgents) sent to each governor of a slaveholding state, with the label “Sample of the favors designed for us by our Northern Brethren.”

Ruffin welcomed the start of sectional hostilities in April 1861. Allegedly he fired one of the first rebel shots at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, this time as an honorary member of the Palmetto Guards. Yet the war that began so hopefully for Ruffin left him bitter at the end. With his Virginia plantation despoiled, his slaves set free, and the Southern cause lost, Ruffin loaded a gun and shot himself to death.

Unidentified photographer
Salted paper print with watercolor wash, circa 1861
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


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