At 4:40 a.m. on April 12, 1861, Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in South Carolina, initiating the first battle of the American Civil War, an internecine conflict that would result in the preservation of the Union at the cost of some 620,000 military deaths plus an unknown number of civilian casualties.
Southern tradition and Ruffin family legend maintain that the first shot on Fort Sumter was fired by my ancestor Edmund Ruffin, who at the time of the attack was 66 years old.
I first heard about Edmund in a fifth-grade history lesson during the 1968-69 school year. Our teacher, Christine Ruffin, who was married to my father’s first cousin, was about to show us a film about the War Between the States when she said, “Mike, you might want to pay close attention to this,” and so I did.
Soon there appeared on the screen a picture of a steely-eyed man with long gray hair as the narrator informed us that the first shot on Fort Sumter had been fired by the man in the picture, one Edmund Ruffin.
Edmund was born in Prince George County, Va., on Jan. 5, 1794. A farmer, he became well known due to his research into and writings about ways to replenish the soil of Virginia that had been ravaged by heavy tobacco farming.
Eventually, though, he became better known as one of the Fire-Eaters, a group of Southern radicals who championed secession of the Southern states as the way to preserve slavery and the Southern way of life.
Indeed, Edmund travelled across the South advocating for secession. His outspoken views made him a hero to many in the South and that popularity is why, according to tradition, he was given the “honor” of firing the first cannon in the initial fusillade against Fort Sumter.
Integrity compels me to report that while historians agree that Edmund was present at and participated in the attack on Fort Sumter, most maintain that we don’t know who actually fired the first shot. Being a Ruffin, though, I’ll stand by the tradition!
On June 17, 1865, two months after the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Edmund – faced with economic misfortune, declining health and the South’s defeat – committed suicide.
It is often said of Edmund Ruffin, then, that he fired both the first and last shots of the Civil War.
In the last words he penned in his diary, Edmund said:
I here declare my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule – to all political, social and business connection with the Yankees and to the Yankee race. Would that I could impress these sentiments, in their full force, on every living Southerner and bequeath them to every one yet to be born! 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 latest 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.
For obvious reasons Edmund is a hero even now to some Southerners; they see in him a true champion of the lost cause and a true embodiment of Confederate courage.
As a descendant of his, I confess that I don’t regard him as a hero but rather as what he was: a flawed human being who on the one hand had the courage to act on his strongly held convictions but who on the other hand was driven by a misguided vision – albeit one shared by many, many other Southerners – of the best future of his beloved home region.
I can’t be critical of his misguided zeal, given
(a) that I have no way of knowing that I would not have shared it had I lived in his day and time,
(b) that I bring no particular honor on myself by my alarming failure to speak out on and to take action concerning the continuing negative legacies, particularly in the area of race relations, of the Civil War, and
(c) that my own zeal has been misguided plenty of times.
The lost cause that Edmund championed was a lost cause because it was a wrong cause; it was on the wrong side of history, of progress and of justice.
Do I carry in me a legacy of my ancestor Edmund?
Well, sometimes I feel like I champion some lost causes, too, causes that go by names like love, grace, kindness, forgiveness, simplicity, and humility – causes that are obviously much different than the one that Edmund championed.
My causes feel like lost causes because so few people seem to have any legitimate and abiding interest in them as a way of life – as the way of eternal life.
Unlike Edmund’s lost cause, though, my lost causes are, I have to believe, right causes; they are right because they reflect the teachings and the life, including the crucifixion and resurrection, of Jesus Christ.
They are right causes because they build relationships up rather than tear them down and they bring people together rather than drive them apart.
My approach is different than Edmund’s, too; Edmund was a Fire-Eater, a rabble-rousing provocateur who was willing to use coercion to the point of violence to advance his cause.
My methods, I believe, even though I am very zealous for the cause of Christ, should and must reflect the approach of the Prince of Peace on whose life I base my life and on whose death I will base my death.
Methods like coercion, demagoguery and violence (including emotional and spiritual violence) must be rejected out of hand while methods characterized by integrity, humility, grace and trust must be embraced.
Edmund took his life because events did not turn out as he wanted them to turn out; I will live my life, no matter what comes, believing that God is working God’s purposes out.
My ancestor Edmund Ruffin was at the Battle of Fort Sumter 150 years ago, participating in an armed assault on a badly outmanned garrison.
Now I, Michael Ruffin, continue to participate as a member of the ragtag army of Jesus Christ that uses unlikely and seemingly ineffective weapons like grace, love, peace and mercy in God’s mopping-up operation against an already defeated enemy.
Curriculum editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing in Macon, Georgia.