Monday, December 6, 2010

Edmund Ruffin's 1860 Visit to Kentucky: Part I

Diaries are incredible primary sources for historians. What is shared in a diary by its author is usually not intended for others to read, and thus often provides the most personal and intimate thoughts of an individual. Fortunately, Southern arch-secessionist, fire-eater, and hot spur (along with whatever other applicable adjective you want to give him) Edmund Ruffin left a diary to give us a look into his world. The diary has been carefully transcribed and edited by scholar William Kaufman Scarborough and was printed by Louisiana State University Press in 1972 in three volumes.

Volume I, Toward Independence, which covers Ruffin's diary from October 1856 to the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, includes a visit Ruffin made to Kentucky in the summer of 1860 in part to visit his daughter, who had married a Kentucky schoolteacher.

Ruffin's western trip included a number of side visits as well and started on August 7, 1860. That day he wrote, "Completed my arrangements, & the packing my clothes, & usual travelling supply of pamphlets (for gratuitous distribution abroad), & before 11 set out for the wharf to take the steamer for Richmond. From Richmond Ruffin took a train toward the resort community of White Sulphur Springs, in then western Virginia. At the springs Ruffin was in company with many leading Southerners who vacationed there in the summer. James Chesnut of South Carolina, Henry King Burgwyn, Sr. and Thomas Ruffin of North Carolina, Governor William McWillie of Mississippi, Col. Francis H. Smith of the Virginia Military Institute, and Joseph Reid Anderson, the owner of Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond were all mentioned by Ruffin as being there with him.

I can't help but wonder about the slave attendants that must have accompanied these famous vacationers to the springs. What did they do when their duties were done for the day? What did they discuss with each other? Did they complain about their masters, or brag about their masters' wealth? Did they cut up and joke with one another, or did they stay to themselves?

On August 31, 1860 Ruffin and his granddaughter Nanny left on the stage coach and traveled through Greenbriar, Monroe, Giles and Pulaski counties to catch the train. They caught the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad at Newbern, Virginia, near present day Dublin, and took it to Bristol on the Tennessee/Virginia border, and then finally to Knoxville. From Knoxville they traveled on to Chattanooga and then on Nashville. Ruffin was not too fond of the pests in Chattanooga. He wrote, "The mosquitoes there invaded our cars, & were troublesome during the night." Likewise he was not impressed with Nashville other than "the new State House," which he called "a noble structure." On September 3 Ruffin and Nanny traveled to Louisville, Kentucky. During the train ride to the river city "the engine and forward car were much damaged" when "some villain had placed logs across the track." Although no one was injured seriously the incident delayed their trip and necessitated a stay in Louisville at the Galt House hotel. Ruffin found Louisville, "very superior to Nashville," and commented that it had "very fine private buildings."

On the morning of September 5 they finally headed toward Frankfort, where Ruffin's daughter Mildred lived with her new husband Burwell Sayre. The Sayre's met Edmund and Nanny at the railroad depot on Broadway in Frankfort and from there they traveled to "Mr. Sayre's house, which is in a thinly settled outskirt, across the river from the city proper, & from which it is distinguished by the common name of South Frankfort."

The following day, Ruffin the agriculturist commented extensively on the geography he had observed in Tennessee and Kentucky. That evening Ruffin engaged in a conversation with Sayre and a Dr. Samuel Theobald on "the present condition of the slave-holding states, & the institution of negro slavery, under the unceasing assaults of the northern people, & the probable consequences." Both Sayre and Theobald thought that "slavery shall be driven from the now border slave-holding states by the pressure of northern abolitionist action, causing the discontent & aiding the escape of slaves from their owners, & thereby compelling the gradual removal or sale of all the others to more southern localities..." They hoped that "in this gradual process, free white labor may be substituted for the present slave labor, & without great loss to individuals or utter ruin (as I maintain) to the southern states..." Ruffin claimed he restrained himself and his "extreme views," but that they (his views) were "already understood here.."

On Sept. 7 Ruffin commented directly on the capital city. "Frankfort, though containing only some 3500 inhabitants, yet being the seat of the state government, has many residents, of high position, & very select society..." Ruffin also received a message from Frankfort resident and U.S. Senator John J. Crittenden that he would visit that day and also invited Ruffin to his house that evening. During the day Ruffin met with a group of men including Crittenden, and Dr. Theobald. Ruffin wrote, "all of us had served in the war of 1812, all as officers except myself, who had only served my six months tour of volunteer duty as a private militia soldier." That evening at 8:30 the Ruffin and they Sayres walked to Crittenden's home on the corners of Washington and Main Streets. Also in attendance at the gathering was ex-Kentucky governor Letcher, who Ruffin described as "now aged & very infirm, & almost crippled by rheumatism." Ruffin explained that he "had a difficult part to play," and attempted to "avoid...all political discussion, or the voluntary & uncalled for expression of my unpopular opinions-but without attempting to disguise and disavow them. When it was necessary in my remarks to give any indication of my own opinions, in the present [political] party contest, or otherwise, which I knew to be different from, & unpalatable to all my other auditors, I did so in jocular manner, & sometimes with exaggerated expressions, which prevented any invasion of the good temper & kind feeling of the party. Thus, without any approach to saying what was offensive or unpleasant, I permitted, by tacit admission, my most odious doctrines [of secession] to be inferred & understood, & expressed my strong objections, & even contempt, for past political occurrences, & their chief agents or most prominent puppets, of which these persons held opinions exactly the reverse of mine." Ruffin felt that by doing so, "I do not think that I lost ground in any one's favor- & seemed to gain the heart of [former] Gov. Letcher, the most violent, open, & strongly prejudiced whig & unionist, & submissionist..."

During the evening Ruffin and Crittenden discussed the common ancestry of Kentucky and Virginia. Ruffin agreed with Crittenden that Kentuckians' ancestors, "these pioneers, the fathers of the present generation, & especially of the better classes, were men who had devoted years of their lives, & most or all of their properties, to the patriotic defense of their country's cause in the field-& who further, had the courage & resolution & energy to seek to rebuild their fortunes by the then dangerous & arduous enterprise of settling in & subduing the almost untrodden savage western wilderness." This proud fact seemed lost on the current Kentuckians by Ruffin's observation who saw their "descendants degenerated in political worth, in being now entirely ready to submit to wrongs & oppressions a hundred-fold greater than those formerly inflicted by the mother country, & against which their brave ancestors rebelled, & resisted at every hazard to property, & to life itself!"

In the next post I will cover more of Ruffin's visit to Kentucky, and his return trip to Virginia.

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