• Poplar Grove National Cemetery Luminary Event (photo courtesy of Joanne Williams)

    Petersburg

    National Battlefield Virginia

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The Ruffin Family

Richard Eppes purchased James Madison Ruffin in 1847 from a Dr. Lockhead. Madison, who was born in 1812, was the most trusted slave of the Eppes family. He frequently was sent on errands to Petersburg and Richmond for his owners. Serving in various capacities as a gardener, ornamental gardener, and waiting man, Madison also knew his characteristics of being what his master said was “honest, truthful, and truly pious” allowed him to stretch the patience of his master. Madison frequently was allowed to visit family in Smithfield, Virginia where he would take an extra day or so. His trips to Petersburg and Richmond also at times included a delayed return to the plantation. Richard Eppes never recorded a whipping of Madison, but at times he did reinforce through an argument that ultimately, Richard Eppes had the final say.

Madison married Harriet, whose parentage is unknown. Harriet was born on the Eppes’ plantation in 1816. Eppes described her as being an “excellent house servant.” She served as Mary Eppes Cocke’s (Richard’s mother) personal maid in her youth. She continued as the household maid while Richard Eppes’ owned her. Madison was not Harriet’s first husband. She had Robert Moody (born 1835), George Gilliam (born 1838), Richard Gilliam (born 1840), and Patty Rud (born 1845), prior to her marriage to Madison not long after he was purchased. Madison and Harriet had a total of six children: Paulina (born 1848), James (born 1850), Agnes (born 1851), John (born 1853), Samuel (born 1855), and Indianna (born 1858).

Richard Eppes would experience nearly the wholesale disappearance of this family as a result of the Civil War. Richard Eppes took Robert Moody, Harriet’s son, with him as a body servant in 1861. Robert was the first of Richard Eppes’ slaves to take control of his destiny. He “ran away from camp at Burwell’s Bay near mouth of James River, Aug. 24, 1861” and stole his master’s pistol. Madison, Harriet, and all but one of their children, James, left in May 1862 and sought freedom behind the Union lines during the Peninsula Campaign. The exact reason why twelve year old James was left behind is unknown.

After the war, Madison, Harriet, and the children from their marriage returned. Harriet’s children from her previous relationships did not. Madison worked for Richard Eppes until his death in 1876. Madison was buried in St. John’s Episcopal Church’s cemetery a few feet away from the burial spot of his former owner’s family. Harriet died in 1892 and her former master went to collect her remains and had her buried at the People’s Cemetery in Petersburg. Their daughter, Paulina married Henry Epps (no relation to Richard Eppes’ family), a sailor in the United States navy. Paulina continued working as a domestic servant for the Eppes family until her death in the 1940s.

Did You Know?

Blandford Church and Cemetery, 1865.

Those who died on the battlefields around Petersburg were left where they were originally buried until after the Civil War. From 1866-69 most Union dead were buried at Poplar Grove National Cemetery while thousands of Confederate dead were buried at the historic Blandford Cemetery. (Petersburg NB)