Charles City, Va. — AT the end of the Civil War, the Ruffins of Virginia saw their fortune destroyed and the life of the Old South vanquished forever. Proud, elderly Edmund Ruffin, a patriarch, farmer, and soldier, wrapped himself in a Confederate flag and fired a final, fatal shot. His devastated family was left to rebuild the Ruffin name and fortune by new rules.
Today, on a part of the Ruffin estate that Union troops burned in 1862 stands the magnificent mansion called Evelynton, built by Edmund's great-grandson, John, as a symbol of the family's strength, longevity, and triumph over hard times.
The two-story brick manor house reaches back to colonial days for its inspiration, modeling itself after the 18th-century plantation houses along the nearby James River.
But constructed on the site of Civil War destruction, Evelynton is a monument to the resilience of a family that has learned to rebuild.
``Sometimes I think, `Gosh, what a cushy life I've had,''' says Elizabeth Ruffin Harrison, John Ruffin's granddaughter, standing in the front hall beside the splendid curving staircase and family antiques.
But when a difficult task looms, ``I think, `Maybe I can do it because I have it in my blood,''' she continues.
A family who prospered in Virginia since 1666, the Ruffins were part of the aristocratic clique of planters who settled along the James River.
Edmund Ruffin made his family seat at Marlbourne. In 1847 his son Edmund Jr. bought 860 acres at Evelynton, part of the original Westover Plantation, and named it after William Byrd's daughter Evelyn.
Fiery, outspoken Edmund Sr. was the illustrious family's most striking figure. An innovative farmer, he pioneered a highly useful organic fertilizing technique in Virginia. And as a passionate Southerner, he contributed to the spread of radical secessionism and fired the first shot of the Civil War at Fort Sumter.
He was also a kind but powerful father, who has dominated family attitudes even to the present day.
After Edmund's self-inflicted death, his children floundered emotionally and financially.
Not until John Augustine Ruffin Jr. married Mary Saunders in the mid-1920s did the family spirit - and fortunes - rebound.
A kind of Southerner different from the struggling farmers, the Saunderses were Richmond entrepreneurs, who built a storefront operation into a highly successful wholesale grocery business. In planning a home, Mary Saunders Ruffin drew on both the Ruffins' long ties to the land and the Saunders's confident prosperity.
The architect Duncan Lee, who was responsible for the restoration of the plantation house at Carters Grove, designed the house at Evelynton to equal the beauty and graciousness of the grand plantation homes nearby.
Like those colonial mansions, Evelynton is constructed in perfectly symmetrical proportions, with a wide entry hall and four downstairs rooms. Built in the early 1930s, the home is made with 250-year-old brick salvaged from old tobacco barns in the area.
``The roof rafters in the attic are solid pieces, up to 60 feet long, all cut with a hand saw on the ground,'' says Edmund Saunders Ruffin, Evelynton's present owner.
``All the floor joists were cut by hand.''
The magnificent house securely anchored the family's public image as one of the grand James River families who managed to hold their own through centuries of change.
But soon after World War II, tragedy struck. John Ruffin died, leaving Mrs. Ruffin with five children between the ages of 19 and 12. To defray costs, she opened her magnificent home for public tours.
After Mrs. Ruffin's death, her youngest son, Archer, bought the house from the estate and farmed its fields until 1976. Then Saunders Ruffin bought his boyhood home and in 1986 reopened it to the public.
Elizabeth Ruffin Harrison now manages Evelynton for her father, opening it to the public for tours, weddings, and receptions. The family gathers here for reunions and special parties, and keeps private quarters on the second floor. The splendid first floor, terrace, gardens, and riverfront are open to all.
``In a sense you're sharing your house with the world at large,'' says Mrs. Harrison, a diminutive woman of 33, who lives with her husband and six-month-old daughter in an 18th-century farmhouse a few miles away.
``But a house like this is meant to be full of people.''
The presence of the past looms large in this house, itself a kind of giant's shoes that the current generations of Ruffins must grow mightily to fill.
Dramatic oil paintings of the younger generation - Elizabeth, Ned, 27, Harrison, 23, and Sara, 19 - visually mark the family traits passed down through the years.
``You look at pictures of even Edmund Ruffin, and it's eerie - the resemblance to my two brothers,'' says Harrison.
For her, the powerful family past provides a way of understanding and creating her own strength, modeled on the image of her ancestors.
``I see a string of characteristics that I pick up from the Saunders side of the family and the Ruffins,'' she says, tracing her family's history.
``People say, `If only we could get workmanship like this nowadays,''' her father comments, looking about at the intricately carved woodwork.
``I remember my father saying they were making the same complaints in the mid-30s, saying that you can't get good help like you could in the 1800s.
``You can't live in the past,'' he reflects, recalling the sense of loss and displacement that overtook his Ruffin ancestors in the decades immediately after the Civil War.
``The future's what you've got to depend on.''