The Union Army’s chief of ordnance sabotaged the introduction of repeating weapons.
The Civil War has been called the first “modern war” and is credited with the introduction of revolutionary military technologies to include repeating weapons and proto-machine guns such as the Gatling gun. In reality, although these weapons did appear on the battlefield, it was in relatively small numbers and never enough to decisively affect the outcome of the war. This was largely due to determined opposition and obstructionism by the Union Army’s chief of the Ordnance Bureau,Brigadier General James Wolfe Ripley.
Ripley was born December 10, 1794, in Windham County, Connecticut, and he graduated as an artillery lieutenant from West Point in 1814. He served under Andrew Jackson in 1817-18 in the Seminole War as an ordnance officer. In this capacity, he once refused to fill a requisition because it did not go through the proper channels.Jackson promptly informed Ripley that if he did not comply, he would be arrested, brought to headquarters and hanged from the nearest tree. Ripley immediately filled the requisition.
Later, Ripley commanded several U.S. arsenals, including Springfield Arsenal in Massachusetts. There, in 1854, he graciously hosted a British delegation desperate to learn from America’s mass production and interchangeable parts systems how to rebuild Britain’s Royal Small Arms Factory to meet the demands of the Crimean War for the new Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle-musket. Ironically, the subsequently improved British production capacity enabled Britain to supply Confederate armies with 400,000 Enfields to use against Union forces during the Civil War. (See Forgotten History, May 2012 ACG.)
At the war’s outbreak in 1861,Ripley was promoted to brigadier general and appointed chief of the Ordnance Bureau, a position of critical importance in arming the new mass Union armies being raised.However, he initially opposed expanding new production of rifled weapons in favor of converting the large on-hand stocks of obsolete smoothbore muskets to rifles. Since adding rifling to the out-of-date smoothbores produced weapons that were clearly inferior to the newly manufactured rifles, his erroneous position unnecessarily delayed the production of desperately needed weapons of the latest design.
But once Ripley finally conceded the necessity of producing new rifled weapons, he expended every effort to ensure acquisition of the Model 1861 Springfield rifle-musket, a state-of-the-art weapon developed while he was superintendent of Springfield Arsenal. Ripley was an honest public servant who always negotiated the best possible prices for government contracts and never exhibited a hint of corruption in the midst of massive thievery in war orders in other departments.
Unfortunately, however, Ripley seemed terrified of new technologies, which he labeled “new-fangled gimcracks” (showy, but useless). He firmly believed the emerging technology of repeating, rapid-fire small arms would produce weapons that would not work properly and would only interfere with the production of standard rifle-muskets. He further insisted that repeating weapons would destroy troops’ fire discipline by causing such a rapid expenditure of ammunition that adequate resupply would be impossible. He so obstinately clutched at such excuses that he never considered how quickly an enemy would melt away when faced with a 7-to-1 or more firepower disadvantage. Ripley’s response to every technological innovation was that the present systems were “good enough.”
In the mid-19th century, American industry was the world leader in developing the technology of repeating weapons. In 1851,Samuel Colt’s six-shot revolver had amazed crowds at London’s Crystal Palace Exposition.A decade later, the advent of the Civil War prompted a proliferation of new designs and sparked competition among firearms inventors to create repeating weapons. President Abraham Lincoln, in particular, appreciated the new technologies and took a personal interest in them. On his own authority, he ordered the government to buy the first machine gun, the Union Repeating Gun, nicknamed the “Coffee Mill Gun” for its top-mounted hopper-feed system.
The hidebound Ripley was bound to clash with the forward-looking president. Indeed,Lincoln had to go to Ripley’s office and give his ordnance chief direct orders to buy the new weapons. Although Ripley grudgingly complied, he then did his best to sabotage the purchase contracts by inserting an egregious “fine print” clause that would cancel any order that was even one day late in delivery.This proved to be especially effective obstructionism considering the inevitable delays the new companies experienced as they wrestled with unfamiliar technologies. Ripley’s correspondence reveals his continual effort to cancel all orders for repeating weapons by unfairly exaggerating a few delivery failures or development problems. Yet field commanders were so desperate for the new rapid-fire weapons that some of them armed their units with repeaters personally purchased by their troops or officers.
In one notorious incident, Ripley provoked a near mutiny by the famed Berdan’s Sharpshooter Regiment (2d U.S. Sharpshooters) in early 1862 by refusing to fulfill the government’s promise to arm the regiment with the rapid-firing Sharps rifle. (Although the Sharps was not a “repeater” per se, its innovative rapid reloading mechanism enabled significantly increased firepower.) Only the direct intervention of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ensured the sharpshooters were properly armed as promised with the excellent Sharps rifle.
Ripley also sabotaged Lincoln’s “coffee mill” machine guns by ordering them returned to the Washington Arsenal, where they sat out the rest of the war. Major General John C. Fremont, commanding in the West, wrote to Ripley and stated that he wanted the weapons, yet Ripley replied with a deliberate falsehood, claiming that he had never heard of them. Similarly, in 1863, Ripley successfully blocked any consideration of Richard Gatling’s revolutionary new rapid-fire machine gun.
As early as January 1862, Lincoln and Stanton had been ready to replace Ripley, but his job was saved by the fact that no one else among the small stable of U.S. Army ordnance officers possessed the experience to manage the vital bureau. Yet even that shield splintered under growing complaints from field commanders and arms makers that Ripley was denying the army what it clearly wanted. Finally, in mid-September 1863, Lincoln and Stanton forced Ripley to retire. By then, however, it was too late to begin mass producing repeating weapons and re-equipping Union armies with them.
Ripley ended his days in an essentially honorary position as inspector of coastal artillery in New England, and he died in 1870. In his defense, it was largely due to his efforts that the over 2 million Union soldiers who served during the war were consistently well armed with standard muzzle-loading rifle-muskets and supplied with plenty of ammunition. Yet Ripley’s failure to ride the wave of new technology meant that the war dragged on longer than it should have, thereby producing a higher cost in lives and treasure.
Peter Tsouras is the author of 26 books on military history. He served in the Army and Army Reserve and worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency until retiring in 2010 to devote himself to writing, his roses and his grandchildren.
Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Armchair General.