Ruffin’s Library and Slaves Lost
Edmund Ruffin killed himself on 17 June 1865, unable to live under a Northern tyranny that had already destroyed his life, family, and way of life. Since the war began and the vandals had descended upon the Old Dominion, he would experience firsthand what destruction the conqueror was capable of.
Bernhard Thuersam, Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
Ruffin’s Library and Slaves Lost:
“One other loss of property occurred during the first occupation at Beechwood [plantation], the result of looting by Union troops: the libraries were destroyed. Ruffin had no inventory of his books. He suspected at first that most of the volumes had been sent by the Union commander to New York for sale. A Union soldier’s letter, which eventually fell into the family’s hands, explained that the libraries had been the objects of looting by Union troops.
Slaves began “absconding” from Marlbourne, Beechwood, and Evelynton very early in the war, just as they did from farms all along the Pamunkey and lower James rivers once McClellan occupied the peninsula. The level of desertions astonished Ruffin. Beechwood suffered heaviest losses from slave defections between May and June 1862, when sixty-nine of the slaves still held there fled. “Not a single man is left belonging to the farm,” he noted on 11 June. (One of the absconders, a man Ruffin knew as William and described as “an uncommonly intelligent Negro,” would return in August 1862 to guide Union forces landing in Prince George.)
Events in June 1862 that broke up the slave community at Beechwood and Evelynton demolished Ruffin’s assumptions about slaves and their relationship to his family…he decided the notion that black people felt a commitment to their own families was just a false statement. At Beechwood and Evelynton individual slaves had absconded with no apparent concern for their families left behind—evidence, Ruffin surmised, that they had no such commitment. [In the early summer of 1862, Ruffin sold] twenty-nine troublesome slaves. That sale, Ruffin said, was an ordeal…their slaves had forced them to “a painful necessity thus to sever more family ties,’…[but] he had sold to just one buyer, who represented just two plantations; he had tried to break no family tie except those already broken by the slaves themselves.”
(Ruffin, Family and Reform in the Old South, David F. Allmendinger, Oxford University Press, 1990, pp. 164-166)