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Today is the day that the shot that started the Civil War was fired from Fort Sumter, South Carolina.  While this wasn’t one of the “shots heard round the world”, it was certainly a shot heard round the United States.

From a born and raised Southerner’s perspective, the Civil War has many layers of meaning and significance.  (Let me say here that I’m not a historian, so this isn’t going to be a history lesson. And I am fully aware of the failed and magical thinking of Southerners of previous generations, so don’t shoot the writer.)  The war was called many things – the War of Northern Aggression, the War Between the States, the War for Southern Independence – and to this day, when I go home to North Carolina, there are still traces.  The side of barn outside of Hampstead still bears a faded wall-sized Confederate flag.  Those flags appear on license plate holders of trucks, and on flagpoles outside of small old houses.  I still get the sense that the South is biding its time, waiting for the right time to strike – that the war isn’t really over – it’s just in hiatus.

In high school, which is when we first started studying the Civil War, we were taught that it was a war about economics – not about slavery (though slavery was inseparable from economics, wasn’t it?).  When slavery was discussed, the focus was not on the philosophy behind it, or even the politics surrounding it, but on the unfair portrayal of slavery and slave owners in histories created by non-Southerners.  I also had an English teacher in senior year who sent students out of the room if they said that the South lost the War.  Mention of Generals Grant and Sherman were not permitted in her presence.  But Robert E. Lee had achieved demigod status in her mind.

Back to the point of today’s post.  One lovely summer afternoon, I was wandering through the Virginia Military Institute Museum with a friend.  I peered into a glass case and gasped.  There was a photograph.  A photograph of a man who I’d known my whole life (until he died.)  What on earth was his picture doing here?  But wait, he looks a little different – he has long hair.  And the photograph is a tintype.  It’s not possible.  I’m so confused!  All that ran through my mind in about 5 seconds. When I found the caption for the image, I realized I’d been mistaken…but I’d been as close as could be.

Edmund Ruffin claimed (and many accept the claim) to have fired the first shot of the Civil War.  A farmer, writer, ardent believer in state’s rights, and Fire-Eater (a group of extreme pro-slavery activists), he was on the fringes of politics for his entire life.  He joined South Carolina troops at the age of 67, which is how he found himself at Fort Sumter for the historical moment.  While there is much debate about exactly what his role was in initiating the battle, it is definitely the case that he was present at the firing of the first cannon shot.

Where does this tie into my life?  My Mother worked for years for Edmund Ruffin’s grandson, a gastroenterologist in Durham.  Dr. Ruffin, a gruff, irascible soul (like his grandfather) had  a heart of gold, a green thumb passed down through generations, and a dry sense of humor.  Having lost my only grandfather at age 7, Dr. Ruffin served as a sort of surrogate grandfather (without the laps and snuggles – he was far too dignified and scary).  He had three daughters, a loving wife, and two faithful servants, a husband and wife couple.  I spent much time at his office at Duke Hospital (later at Croasdaile Clinic) and at his plantation-style red-brick house in town, which looked eerily similar to his ancestral home of Evelynton Plantation.

Behind his house, Dr. Ruffin had a garden.  This was no ordinary garden.  This was at least an acre of seemingly endless vegetables, and a lovely rose garden tended by Mrs. Ruffin.  E-Bro and I would go work in the garden in the summers, helping Dr. Ruffin tend the crops.  And these could legitimately be called crops.  He had rows of cucumbers growing on tall fences.  Vines heavy with green beans.  Corn, tall and golden. Onions and potatoes dug from the ground.  Yellow and pattypan squash. And more tomatoes than anyone could know what to do with.  (It never occurred to me to ask what he did with the harvest – I’m sure it was something good for the community – that’s the sort of man he was.)

Summer thunderstorms would chase us inside some afternoons, and the female half of the hired help would give us sandwiches and milk at the small kitchen table. I remember drinking out of the hose from the side of the house, the water icy cold and sparkling, with the metallic tang from the brass hose head.  Fresh mint and parsley grew alongside the house by the kitchen door.

I remember Mrs. Ruffin as looking coiffed and lovely.  Even though she may not have always worn pearls, she was one of those women who gave the impression that she was always wearing pearls.  Her rose garden had little benches and a pergola.  I used to try to smell each different type of rose – there must have been a hundred.  Even at that age, the adage “Take time to stop and smell the roses” was engrained in my little head.  Mrs. Ruffin developed Alzheimer’s, much to the family’s extreme sorrow, and passed away in a nearby nursing home.  I think it broke Dr. Ruffin’s heart.  I can’t imagine the pain inherent in being a physician yet being helpless to heal the one you love most.

To  this day, the smell of sun-warmed tomatoes on the vine takes me back to summers in Dr. Ruffin’s garden.  I still laugh at a particular memory:

E-Bro and I were picking tomatoes, and he found one that had been bored into by hornworms.  He took it over to Dr. Ruffin.  “What do I do with this?” he asked.  Dr. Ruffin said, “Well, you take it, and you take this one,” splatting a second such blighted fruit in his hand, “and you take them both down to the end of the row and you throw them over the fence.”  OK, it doesn’t seem to translate, but with the seriousness of his delivery, you’d have thought he was about to reveal some mystical gardening wisdom, not just instructions to toss tomatoes into the woods. Guess you had to be there.  I’m glad I was.

In 1865, Less than two months after Lee’s surrender to Grant at the Appomattox Court House, Edmund Ruffin wrote the following:

“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!”

He wrapped himself in a Confederate flag and shot himself in the head.  Some historians have described this as “the last shot of the Civil War.”

Edmund Ruffin and his grandson were both Southern Gentlemen, with a code of honor that is rapidly becoming a ghost of itself in the South today.  I could – and will – write about that concept of the Southern Gentleman, but not now.  Today, it’s overcast in Colorado, and I’m a long way from whatever home is now.  I’m feeling the need for a quest to reconnect with my roots and discover the directions in which they’ve spread, beneath and above the soil of my soul.

In other words, I’m ready to start something.

April 2010


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