More than 600,000 men on both sides died in the American Civil War. The war lasted nearly five years and devastated much of the southern United States. Had the Union won the first battle of the war, there is a good chance that the war might have ended within weeks when compromises were still possible. In the first battles of the Civil War, both sides struggled to understand command and maneuver. But one side was better armed than the other, and that helped make a difference.
Because of the Union’s greater industrial capabilities, most people today are under the impression that the Union Army was always better equipped. This was certainly the case by 1862, but due to a mistake made by James Wolfe Ripley, as the chief of ordnance, this was not true at the start of the war.
In July 1861, Ripley took over the office that purchased all of the weapons and equipment used by the Union Army and Navy. He was sixty-seven years old at the time he was appointed chief. He had fought in the War of 1812, against the Creek and Seminole tribes under Andrew Jackson, and more recently in the Mexican War. He also had been working with ordnance and supply for more than thirty years before he became the top decision maker in that office. He was brought in because his predecessor was inefficient and unable to change with the times. Unfortunately for the Union armies, Ripley proved worse.
Just as the war started and before the Battle of Bull Run (Manassas Creek), the British had completed changing over most of their army to using a new Enfield rifle. This left them with warehouses full of almost 100,000 perfectly usable rifled muskets. The British immediately contacted Ripley, as it was apparent that the U.S. government was going to need a lot of weapons quickly, and offered them to him. The mistake was that Ripley immediately and adamantly turned down the offer.
There were probably a number of reasons that the chief of ordnance did not take the British muskets. It cannot be forgotten that he had actually fought against the British in the War of 1812. Also, there was national pride. The stated reason that he turned down the weapons was “Buy American.” There is also the suspicion that Ripley stood to personally gain by limiting all purchases to American-made weapons. He held some ownership in a U.S.based weapons company. But the real reason, his later actions showed, was that the man who determined for two years what the Union Army fought with was simply hidebound and opposed to any change.
When Ripley turned down the British weapons, they were quickly snatched up by the Confederacy. This meant that for the first months of the war, while Union units struggled with getting the right ammunition for a range of mismatched muskets, the Confederate troops were almost all armed with fairly modern muskets of the same caliber. They were, for those first months, better armed and more easily supplied than the Union soldiers they fought.
James Wolfe Ripley continued in his stubborn resistance to new ideas and weapons until removed from the top position in September 1863. In those two years, he resisted breech-loading weapons, refused to buy the Spencer or other repeating rifles, and kept the army from purchasing any substantial number of Gatling guns. Ripley did not cost the North a victory, but he made it harder to achieve by denying his side the most modern weapons and equipment. And it seemed he did this for no reason other than his own aversion to anything new or different. In a war that marked the beginning of modern technological warfare, Chief of Ordnance Ripley’s decisions slowed a Union victory more than the mistakes of any one general.