Back to Top

07.04.01 Edmund Ruffin, Southerner, A Study in Secession, by Avery O. Craven, published in 1932 by D. Appleton and Company.

Notes Concerning the Author:

Avery Craven (1885-1980) was born in Iowa.  He attended Simpson College and received his BA degree in 1908 at the age of 23 years.  He earned a Master’s Degree at Harvard in 1914 and a Ph. D. at the University of Chicago in 1923, thereafter joining the faculty and spending the rest of his career at that school.  He specialized in American history during the 1800’s and especially in the period before, during and after the War Between the States.

During his long life (he reached the age of 95 years) Avery Craven wrote many books on history which are well known to American readers, especially older readers still living.  He interpreted the history of the era surrounding the War Between the States with reasonably honest writing, as honest as could be expected from a graduate of Harvard and a long-time Chicago professor.  His biography of Edmund Ruffin is an example of his interest in understanding the issues that prompted State Secession.  Other notable Craven books include Civil War in the Making, 1815-1860; The Growth of Southern Nationalism, 1848-1861, and An Historian and the Civil War.

By the way, The Organization of American Historians gives an annual award named after Professor Craven, “for the most original book” on events leading up to the War Between the States, the war years and/or the Political Reconstruction that followed, excepting works that are primarily military in nature.


For the most part, Edmund Ruffin (1784-1865) interests today’s historians and their readers because of his intensity during the 1850’s sectional debate between Republicans and Democrats over the issue of Negro slavery in the southern States, the national territories and future States — a debate that became heated, passionate and destroyed the continuation of any political party capable of drawing support from most or all of the States.  But Ruffin, of the James River region of eastern Virginia, was primarily an agriculturist, pioneering soil scientist and publisher of a farmer’s journal aimed at improved agricultural methods, especially in the southern States and especially for farms struggling to sustain fertility of red clay soils.

At the age of 19 years, Ruffin took responsibility for management of his family’s large farm, which suffered from soil fertility depletion and backward agricultural methods.  He approached such problems as would a scientist, reading and experimenting.  Then one day he “chanced upon an 1813 copy of Humphry Davy’s Elements of Agricultural Chemistry,” a British journal.  Davy’s work contained the clue to the remedy Ruffin needed for his farm: “Lime,” yes, as simple as it sounds today, “Lime.”  Ruffin’s upland soil was too acid.  Lime was needed to neutralize the acid.  But where was he to get it?

“On a February morning in 1818 his carts began to haul the marl that puzzled Negro hands dug from pits hastily opened on his lower lands.”  The marl, fossil sea shells, was a great source of lime.  This was spread upon the upland fields and “from the very start the plants on marled ground showed marked superiority.”  He presented a paper at the local agricultural society that fall.  He published an expanded paper in 1822 in the American Farmer.  He became a major advocate of treating acidic soils with lime sources.

In 1833 Ruffin launched his own Agricultural periodical, called the Farmers’ Register, the first issue being published in June of that year.  It became very popular — designed to appear monthly with 64 pages of solid reading matter (no advertisements).  In terms of its objective: the improvement of agriculture in the southern States, it was a great success.  Of Ruffin and men like him, historian Avery Craven concluded that “no other force played so great a part in producing what the modern historian must rank as one of the great agricultural revolutions in American history. . . .  From 1838 to 1850 the land values of tidewater Virginia increased by over $17,000,000, and one estimate placed the total increase from the application of marl, after 1820, at over $30,000,000.

But agriculturalist Edmund Ruffin’s mind advanced toward other issues, and his publication, Farmers’ Register, included more and more articles concerning political sectionalism and explanations of how slavery in the southern States provided for the Negro a far better life than his cousins were able to enjoy in Africa.  Ruffin’s arguments were honest and based on considerable fact.  He had grown up with slaves, lived with them on the farm, worked alongside them and knew the Negro families on his farms almost as well as his own relatives.  From all evidence, his farms were happy places and warm feelings of affection were prevalent.  Some of Ruffin’s essays compared a Negro’s life on a well-managed, mature farm, such as his, to an immigrant’s life working in a New England textile mill or other manufacturing “sweat shop” environment, where work hours were dreadful and layoffs frequent, and his readers understood.  At age 61, in the year 1855, he decided to retire from the management of his farms.

Retirement allowed him to become more and more passionate about defending the institutions, the honesty and the honor of the people of the southern States.  He travelled about, staying engaged.  He witnessed the execution of the terrorist John Brown.  He maintained a correspondence with the Charleston Mercury, an important newspaper in the southern States.  Eventually, he advocated State secession.  He was at a Confederate battery at Charleston Harbor when Abe Lincoln’s fleet of Federal warships and transports begin arriving offshore.  In response, Confederates demanded that the Federal garrison evacuate Fort Sumter before the Federal fleet started moving into the harbor.  The garrison commander refused.  Edmund Ruffin was asked to light off the first Confederate artillery shot sending it hurling toward the fort.  The Federal fleet watched from off-shore staying away from the firing.  No one was killed in that artillery duel, but the Confederates, secessionists who only wanted to be left alone in peace, were forever blamed for firing the “first shot” in the War Between the States, forever blamed for being the “aggressor” in the conflict better named, “The Federal Invasion of the Confederacy.”

Edmund had married Susan Travis in 1811 and born him 11 children, 8 surviving infancy.  Among his sons was Julian, killed at Drewy’s Bluff, near Richmond in May 1864.  The Ruffin family suffered greatly during the years of fighting.  Federals overran his farms on occasion and took what they wanted, destroying much of the rest.  Finally, all of the Confederate armies were forced to surrender.  The era of Republican Political Reconstruction was the obvious future.  Edmund Ruffin had given his fortune, his family, his heart and his soul to the defense of his beloved Southern States and the success of its agricultural economy and way of life.  He was 71 years old.  His heart was broken and his body felt wasted.  He had no remaining endurance, no residual will power, to live onto the future, under vindictive Republican rule.  He penned a note:

“I here declare my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule . . . .  May such sentiments be held universally in the outraged and down-trodden South, though in silence and stillness, until the now far-distant day shall arrive for just retribution for Yankee usurpation, oppression and atrocious outrages, and for deliverance and vengeance for the now ruined, subjugated and enslaved Southern States! . . .  And now with my latest writing and utterance, and with what will be near my last breath, I here repeat and would 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.”

Historian Avery Craven completed the Ruffin biography three sentences further down the page.  Craven wrote:

“A shot rang out.  The weary old soldier had gone to join the comrades of a lost cause.”

The date was June 18, 1865.  Edmund Ruffin had gone to join son Julian and 260,000 other fallen Confederates.  There, he could be at peace.

Availability of this Book

 Avery Craven was a widely-published author.  Therefore, used copies of his books are not hard to find.  Originally published in 1932 by D. Appleton and Company, his Ruffin book has been reprinted more than once, including as a paperback by Louisiana State University Press (1991).  Suggest you seek a used paperback book, which can be easily located.