Virginia planter Edmund Ruffin’s first foray into South Carolina seemed peaceful enough. He came to preach advancements in agriculture, crop rotation among them.
At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, the 66-year-old slaveholder, “fire eating” secessionist and Palmetto Guards volunteer tucked his long white mane under his hat and fired the first shot of a war that would kill more than 600,000 Americans.
“The first shell from Columbiad No. 1, fired by the venerable Ruffin burst directly upon the parapet of the southwest angle of the fort,” wrote Capt. G. B. Cuthbert of the Palmetto Guards.
Thirty-four terrifying and exhausting hours after Ruffin put fire to fuse on Cummings Point, Col. Robert Anderson and his Union garrison surrendered.
The bombardment, of course, had thousands of eyewitnesses. Legends were born instantly.
One of them involves P.W. Alexander, an intrepid correspondent from Thomaston, Ga., who made a bee line to Fort Sumter with a purpose. He wanted to retrieve that historic first shot fired by Ruffin.
“The big 10-inch ball fell within Fort Sumter without doing any damage,” reads an old Thomaston Times article. “Alexander, who for years had boarded in the home of Mr. and Mrs. B. B. White, was an eyewitness to this scene. He saw just where the ball fell and immediately after the surrender procured it and sent it to his friend, B.B. White.”
Today, nearly 800,000 people each year take the ferry ride to Fort Sumter to see where the carnage and restoration of the Union began. Many fewer tread on the grounds of the Upson County courthouse in Thomaston, 300 miles from Charleston and 60 miles south of Atlanta.
If they do, they’ll see a tall monument to Confederate dead and that cannonball retrieved by Alexander, perched on a marble monument with this 1953 inscription:
“Presented to the UDC [United Daughters of the Confederacy] by Mrs. Sallie White to whom it was given in 1861 by P.W. Alexander, leading Confederate war correspondent who was present when the ball was fired and knew it to be the first. The first marker stating these facts was erected on this square in 1919.”
The cannonball had a more practical household purpose before it was ensconced on the monument pedestal.
“A colorful Upson tale says that P.W. Alexander retrieved the first cannonball fired in the Civil War from the mud in front of the fort, and brought it back to the B. B. White family in Thomaston,” according to a 1998 article by USGenWeb Archives. “The story maintains that this relic served as a door stop at the house, or lay under the porch, for several decades before being elevated to the marble pedestal on which it graces Thomaston’s courthouse square today.”
Alexander, a lawyer and noted Confederate war correspondent who wrote about the brutality of war, can’t confirm the tale. He died in 1886.
Penny Cliff, director for the Thomaston-Upson Archives, and her staff have to do the talking for him.
“Whenever I give tours around the square I use the word ‘allegedly’ in regards to the ‘first’ cannonball fired at Fort Sumter,” Cliff said.
“I do, however, believe it is definitely one of the ‘hot shots’ fired at the fort. Even if it is not the first, it is historically important in the fact that it is one of the cannonballs fired at Fort Sumter.”
History, of course, is subjective and never 100 percent accurate. It’s fair to say that we really don’t know if this iron ball was, in fact, the first shot fired during the Civil War. Historians even disagree on whether another Confederate battery first fired on Sumter, cheating Ruffin of the honors.
But one thing is for certain.
In June 1865, two months after the South surrendered, a despondent Edmund Ruffin took up another firearm.
He propped his rifle on a trunk between his feet, stuck the barrel into his mouth and opened fire.
The war was over.