Diary of Edmund Ruffin


Diary of Edmund Ruffin


Edmund Ruffin


Edmund Ruffin, a Virginia slaveholder, had been a strong proponent of secession. In the following excerpts from his diary, Ruffin recounted his family’s troubles with their slaves during the early years of the war on their Marlbourne plantation as well as their other plantations. Advanced in age, Ruffin had bequeathed Marlbourne to his sons in charge of his son-in-law William Sayre. After the surrender of the Confederacy, Ruffin committed suicide, unable to live under a restored Union.


William K. Scarborough, ed., The Diary of Edmund Ruffin (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972).




Hanover County, Virginia


May 26, 1862

200 of the Yankee cavalry had passed through the neighborhood, on Saturday 17th, stopping at Ingleside and Old Church, within half a mile of Marlbourne House, and passing on above to Haw’s Shop, where they captured some 70 of our army horses, then on the way to Richmond. Very soon after, larger bodies of troops followed, and spread through every public road leading towards Richmond and to almost every farm in that neighborhood. Their vessels also ascended the Pamunkey as high as Retreat landing, 6 miles below Marlbourne. Whenever the Yankee forces passed, or stopped, it was the regular practice for the soldiers to tell the negroes that they were free, that the northern army had come to make them free, and that they should no longer work for their masters. In some cases they were commanded to cease such work. The slaves almost universally readily received these instructions, and availed themselves of the offered privileges. Up to the night of Saturday 17th, not an indication of disobedience or discontent had appeared at Marlbourne. The next day, 12 young men and boys of that farm went off to the enemy. The following day, Monday, all that remained struck work. Mr. Sayre reasoned with them, and endeavored, in mild tone and manner, to show to them the wrong and folly of their course. But in vain. They heard his remarks and answered any questions respectfully, and not one exhibited any insolence of words or manner, or any indication of hostility, or unkind feelings. But it was evident that all were convinced that they had in their reach the negro’s heaven, of being relieved from labor, and were not at all troubled by any misgivings or fears of how they were to be fed and supported in idleness. The owners generally, and Mr. Sayre for one, made no attempt at coercion, and yielded to the necessity of the case. My former black overseer, Jem Sykes, who for the last seven years of my proprietorship, kept my keys, and was trusted in everything, even when I and every other white was absent from 4 to 6 weeks at a time, acted precisely with all his fellows.... [T]hroughout the whole neighborhood the slaves are in general rebellion.

June 22, 1862

[F]or greater present security against following their fore-runners to the Yankees—and except a few families, from which none had absconded, all others are designed to be sold. Though nearly all had shown, whether of those who had gone, or those who had remained, almost perfect disregard of their family ties, it was a painful necessity thus to sever more family ties, and also those before subsisting, (and supposed to be strong on both sides,) between the master and his family and the slaves.

July 4, 1862

The negroes, supposing that the condition of things all around them was general, and Yankee domination completely established throughout, were still more astonished at the sudden flight and disappearance of their Yankee friends and protectors. All the women and children, and the former foreman, Jem Sykes, and one other man, (besides one too infirm to leave,) still remained. The other men and boys, who had gone off (two within the last few days only,) had often returned frequently to Marlbourne, and gone again to the Yankee camps, at will. One young man, of these, was then sick at Marlbourne. The return of Mr. Sayre was evidently unexpected, and the reassumption of authority by the owners doubtless very unwelcome to all. But there was general and complete, if not willing acquiescence. All were called together immediately, and the views of the owners stated by Edmund, and an amnesty declared for the past insubordination, provided their future conduct should be good, as it had been generally previously. They were told that in consideration of their former good conduct up to their recent action, and to their having been deluded and imposed upon by the false statements and false promises of the Yankees, that all past conduct on this score would be overlooked and forgiven. They were told to communicate this promise to those who had absconded, and were authorised to extend it to all of them who should return soon to their duty. But at the same time they were told that this forgiveness of their very heavy offences was founded on their expected future good and obedient conduct—and that if any insubordination should be exhibited hereafter, the offenders would be at once sold. Further, they were notified that the heavy losses of the farm and its owners, caused in great measure by the misconduct of the negroes themselves, and all not by them, by the Yankees whom they had accepted and welcomed as friends and guides, would put it out of the power of the owners, for some time, to be as liberal in allowances to the slaves, as had been the regular usage heretofore—and that they would have to bear some part of the general loss [and] privations which they had aided to produce. They were then ordered to resume the labors of the farm—which all obeyed forthwith.

July 7, 1862

On the second morning, 4 of the absconding men had come in, and were at work reaping wheat. The following night, (as Mr. S. subsequently learned,) all the missing men were on the place, and debated the question whether to remain, and accept the offered amnesty, or not. They decided that they could not trust the promises—and expected that, if remaining, they would be sold—and the leaders declared that they then had it in their power to get off and that they would do so. Under such guidance, all again went off, including the 4 men who had voluntarily returned the previous day.

October 16, 1862

Two of the negro men who went to the Yankees from Marlbourne have been captured in that neighborhood, (the last within a few days,) & were forthwith sent to Richmond & sold, to be carried far south, & probably to Texas. Mr. Sayre supposes that a large proportion of the remaining absconders are still in the neighborhood, concealed fugitives. If so, they may yet be captured, & so lessen somewhat the amount of their loss.

October 23, 1862

And though all remaining home, since the retreat of the Yankees, and the resumption of the owners’ authority, have been obedient and orderly, it is to me very painful to meet my former slaves, to whom I was attached by ties of affection on their part (as I believed) as well as on mine, under such changed circumstances. It will also be difficult for me to preserve towards them the same manner as if they had not offended—and which I, and all others, must try to do, as forgiveness of the past was promised to all who remained to return to their duty, or others then absconding, who might return. Not one of these has returned.

October 29, 1862

The condition of this farm, in the entire deficiency of able men slaves, of live-stock &c., and the great hazard, as well as great expense of re-supplying the needs, caused the owners to offer to sell the farm, at private sale. All chance for a crop of wheat had before been lost, by the inability to plough the clover-hay, or even the little and foul spots of corn land, for seeding. Nearly all yesterday and today, two persons have been here to see and bargain for the land—Talbot & Williams of Richmond. They have the option until next Tuesday, to buy the land at $75,000, and the remaining slaves at $700 average. As it is necessary to sell the land, its sale will involve the necessity of selling the negroes. And the most humane disposition of them that can be made, will be to sell them altogether to the purchaser of the farm, with the understanding that they will be retained here. Of course no obligation that they shall be retained can be required, or expected. The owner of slaves must be free to dispose of them as future circumstances may require. And though the present owners have earnestly sought to effect this best disposition of the slaves here, and will be willing to make some sacrifices to do so, little do these slaves, formerly mine, deserve such care to keep them together at their long-used home, and to prevent further separations of their families. Their conduct in connection with their siding with the Yankee marauders was worse than suspected at first. The amnesty offered to them by Edmund and Mr. Sayre, when resuming possession, has been carried out so fully, that no difference of treatment has been made, of course no punishment for the past offences inflicted—and as far as could be, there has been no difference of manner used towards them. This course required that no investigations should be made as to the pardoned offences. Therefore, it has been only by accidental information, and voluntary and proffered confessions of one of the captured runaways, (since sold,) that more of the misconduct was learned. As to the general quiet rebellion, and the assuming the supposed freedom offered to them by the Yankees, all who remained might be excused, because of their ignorance, and their temptation. But in addition, they aided and participated in the maraudings of the Yankees, to great extent. The negroes (those who went off, as well as they who remained,) sold wheat from the barn to all buyers, at 75 cents the bushel, and some of the poor neighbors were mean enough to buy of them. About 40 hogs were killed by them, (though they were supplied with bacon for 5 months ahead,) and a regular business carried on in cooking the pork, and selling it to the Yankee soldiers in the neighboring camps. From recent facts and appearances, they do not deserve the care designed to prevent separation of families, as they have shown no such care or consideration themselves. Every man and boy that went off (20 at first,) left here, or elsewhere in the neighborhood, all his female and nearly all near relatives—all except such as were their companions of their flight. Every family or individual left here was thus separated, by voluntary action on one side and ready consent on the other, from some father, husband, brother, or son. Yet these separations (in this and all other such cases,) have not seemed to produce sorrow, or trouble, or even transient uneasiness, evinced in words or manner. Under such circumstances, however my feelings are concerned in reference to this unfortunate close of the service of my patrimonial slaves, I do not deem that there will be anything more required of my successors, to prevent further separation, than the present earnest effort to sell them altogether, and to the buyer of the farm. If this cannot be done, it will be superfluous to attempt other indulgence of this kind, than to sell together, to one buyer all the remaining members of each family.

December 3, 1862

There have been many statements published, in northern papers, and from northern writers and witnesses ... showing the heartlessness and cruelty with which the Yankees have treated the runaway slaves, after having deluded them by unmeasured deception, and such gross lies as none but ignorant negroes could believe, to leave their masters, and their before happy homes—happier and better supplied with the comforts suitable to their condition than the homes of poor whites in New England.... Their first discontent (in the general) was produced by the false teachings and seduction deceptions practised upon them by Yankee abolitionists; and their greatest sufferings and unhappiness have been caused by the poisoning of their minds in this respect, and the false promises of the Yankee military officers, and by every common soldier, being consummated in their deserting their homes and masters, and fleeing to the Yankee camps or gun-boats. There they received just so much aid and support as to keep up their deception long enough to draw on other slaves. The deluded victims had been told that they would be free—which a negro understands to mean being free from all obligations to labor—and that every one would find plenty of employment, and light service, at high wages. Instead, as a general rule, and after they were secured, they were worked harder than ever before as slaves, with uncertain employment for able men—still less for the women, and soon were in extreme suffering for food, shelter and fire. Every one who was extremely sick must have died for want of attention and necessary comforts. Before this winter will end, it is probable that one half of the women and children, and other infirm and helpless of these fugitives, will die of want, or of diseases caused by hunger, cold, and exposure.

January 23, 1863

At that time, and long after, I and my sons had a very high opinion of Mr. Sayre’s qualifications and habits, as a man of tried energy and industry, and turn for good management, which would more than compensate, as we thought, for his having had no experience in large farming, and on a grain farm.... I was also to continue to make Marlbourne my home, though I expected to be most abroad, and traveling, for some length of time, and certainly until the new government was in full operation, and until the slaves had learned (a difficult lesson it was,) that I was no longer their owner, and the real director of farm government. All things worked badly. The negroes could never understand their belonging to a co-partnership—and the acting owner and director being to them a stranger, [was] viewed with unjust suspicion and growing dislike. The strong disposition for loyalty, which is natural to the negro race, had no place for growth. The negro needs to look up to, for protection and control, one individual master or mistress—which here had no existence. The negroes could not feel great attachment to a co-partnership of owners, though they would have gladly belonged to either of my children alone—and still less, when all the authority of the copartnership was exercised by a stranger whom they first disliked, and subsequently hated heartily. This I did not learn until in my late visit to Marlbourne. I then learned that this hostile feeling had existed for years—and I now am convinced that its existence has been the motive and cause of most of the disastrous losses suffered on this estate. For years after the two fires, which, with their incidental and consequent losses, cost the owners not less than $16,000, I would not believe them to have been made by any of our own slaves. But since, for a long time now, I have changed my opinion, and have concurred fully in the general belief that the incendiaries were some of our own slaves, and prompted by dislike of their new and singular condition as to ownership, and to dislike to be governed by Mr. Sayre. They doubtless expected that such great destruction of property by fire would induce a breaking up of the existing arrangement, and the division of the slaves among owners in severalty. But this did not occur. . . Thus the negroes scarcely ever saw any one of those, either of whom they would gladly have had as a sole master—and were left entirely to the government of one whom (however unjustly,) they hated. Under these conditions, the Yankee army arrived, and proclaimed freedom to every slave, and further that the slaves had the best right to possess their masters’ farms and moveables. All the Marlbourne slaves at once accepted these offered boons, and stopped work—and then or later, every able-bodied man, and every boy above 12 years old, went off to the enemy’s camp. Perhaps they might have done the same if circumstances had been reversed. For, my son Edmund, always a humane and judicious master (as also was Mr. Sayre,) lost a much larger proportion of slaves from his residence and individual property, than in his share at Marlbourne. However, whatever were the causes, all the most valuable slaves absconded, (18 at first,) and for want of their labor, the standing crops of wheat and oats and clover, and nearly all the crop of corn, was lost. In addition to these losses, Mr. Sayre seems to have lost, for some time back, all his former devotion to his business, if not utterly disliking it. And since the first coming of the Yankee forces, if not earlier, he seems not to have given even very slight personal attention to the labors of the farm, and to have felt no interest or duty in its direction. This became very apparent to me when I lately was there for some weeks. But previously, I had not suspected or supposed the possibility of such neglect.


  • How did the war force Ruffin to rethink his beliefs about the institution of slavery and relations between masters and slaves?
  • How did the slave population react to the arrival of Union soldiers?
  • How did Edmund Ruffin attempt to explain his slaves’ actions?
  • How did Ruffin reconcile the sale of his slaves with his paternalistic ideals?