EDMUND RUFFIN’S COMPASS WITH GREAT CAPTURE INSCRIPTION AND PRESENTATION TO JOHN WEIDMAN, BRIG. GEN. PENN. MILITIA AND CAPTAIN 4th PA VOL. CAVALRY 1861-1862

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Item Code: 1179-447

Edmund Ruffin was one of the foremost personalities of the Civil War. A Virginian by birth and an ardent secessionist, Ruffin got his greatest fame by heading to South Carolina and pulling a lanyard in a Morris Island battery to send one of the first shells toward Fort Sumter, and he did not mind if people thought he actually fired the first gun. Ruffin and family owned several plantations in Virginia. This pocket compass was “liberated” from one of those residences during McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign by members of Co. F, 4th PA Cavalry and presented to their captain, both as useful military tool, and likely as a reminder of the owner, who had traveled to spread his beliefs and had done so much to bring about the conflict. They had it beautifully inscribed on the domed top:

“Confiscated / From the residence / of the hoary old traitor / = Ruffin = / who fired the first gun at / - Fort Sumter - / by Co F 4th Penna. Cavalry, / and presented by them / to their Captain / John Weidman / of Lebanon Pa. / July 1862.”

Weidman was born in 1814 and 47 years old when the war broke out and he decided to raise a company of cavalry for the volunteer service. He had studied medicine when young, but gave it up to follow his father into the legal profession, practicing in Lebanon County, sometimes in front of the state supreme court, and was elected District Attorney despite others on the Democratic ticket being defeated. An obituary records his longstanding interest in military affairs and his commission as Brigadier General of the 2nd Brigade, 5th Division of Pennsylvania militia about 1853.

The 4th PA Cavalry recruited in September and October 1861, and rendezvoused at Camp Curtin, but mustered into service at Washington, where it spent the winter drilling. Weidman enrolled officially on Aug. 6 and was mustered in October 29. The date of his commission is unclear, but seems to have been Oct. 20. In May 1862 the regiment joined McDowell on the Rappahannock and was assigned to McCall’s division of Pennsylvania Reserves and in late June moved to the Peninsula to support McClellan’s hesitant and faltering campaign against Richmond, arriving at White House Landing on June 24, just at the outbreak of the Seven Days Battles. One battalion was sent to Yorktown and the remainder, including Weidman’s company, took part in the withdrawal to Harrison’s Landing.

This date of arrival does not give much time for the compass to be “confiscated” in June, and Ruffin owned several estates that suffered at the hands of Union forces, but journals kept by Edmund Ruffin, Jr., residing at “Beechwood” in Prince George’s County, indicate he and family fled that house for the family estate Marlbourne in Hanover County on June 25. Secondary sources indicate Beechwood was then pretty well looted by Federal troops, who left a few notes on the walls that mirror the “hoary old traitor” of the compass inscription. Two of the quoted messages were, "This house belonged to a Ruffinly son of a bitch," and, "You old cuss, it is a pity you go unhanged."

The compass may have been something of a parting gift to Weidman. He had contracted chronic diarrhea and submitted a resignation on June 30. Army paperwork being what it has always been, he did not receive official notice its acceptance until November 29. The regiment’s Lieutenant Colonel notes in the pension files that Weidman had remained with the unit, or at least in the field, until shortly before the Battle of Antietam when he was sent to Washington on a surgeon’s certificate of disability, giving time for his men to have compass inscribed and make the presentation. Weidman likely received official word of his discharge while in hospital at Washington or home on sick leave. He never fully recovered, however, and the disease, acquired during his service, was deemed to have contributed to his death from inflammation of the lungs in April 1863. Ruffin survived him by just two years, committing suicide in 1865.

This is a great looking piece with a wonderful inscription that really expresses the early war Union patriotic fervor that matched some of the famous southern “Fire Eater’s” own pronouncements.    [sr] [ph:m/L]

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