Colonel James Wolfe Ripley and the English Enfield Rifles
by William R. Forstchen
(From It Seemed Like a Good Idea… A Compendium of Great Historical Fiascoes
by William R. Forstchen and Bill Fawcett)
Colonel James Ripley, West Point class of 1813, may very well have been responsible for the bloody four-year length of the American Civil War, a conflict which might have ended in a matter of months. Sixty-seven years old when he assumed control of the Ordnance Department of the United States Army in 1861, Ripley disdained any innovations proposed for arming the burgeoning armies of the North. Amongst Civil War buffs he is well known as the man who used every bureaucratic means possible to block the introduction of breech-loading weapons for the infantry, especially the rapid-firing Spencer rifle, which he claimed would only encourage men to "waste ammunition, which is expensive." His greatest folly, however, was not a sin of commission, but rather of omission, and it cost the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides.
The story begins in 1852 when England sponsored the first of the modern World's Fairs at the newly constructed Crystal Palace. The American display was opened with nothing more than boxes of machined parts. Volunteers were taken from the audience, and within a matter of minutes guided through the assembling of these parts into a fully functional Colt revolver, a masterpiece of precision interchangeable manufacturing. So revolutionary was this demonstration that the British Parliament assigned a commission to travel to America to unlock the secrets of this new technology, and one of their first stops was at the Springfield Armory, which at this point was just gearing up for mass production of the new 1855 model Springfield .58 Rifled Musket. Awed by this precision capability, the British government purchased a full working factory.
Within three years the British began manufacturing their own rifled musket, the .577 caliber Enfield, which was nearly identical to the American Springfield except for slight modifications in the hammer and a three thousandths of an inch difference in caliber.
The advent of hostilities in America caught the federal army completely flat-footed, though some would later claim that Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War under Buchanan, had in fact deliberately sabotaged key decisions for preparation while still in office. The army was less than 20,000 strong, but far more importantly the stockpile of modem weapons which should have existed, was in fact nonexistent. The model 1855 Springfields that were on hand numbered only in the tens of thousands, of which many were in Southern armories. Weapons dating all the way back to the Revolution were all that were available in various state armories.
Three days after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers, and by the end of the summer further calls went out for an additional half million men. The biggest problem facing the Union was not getting volunteers-in fact men were actually being turned away-but rather how to arm them. This was the situation that landed on Colonel Ripley's desk.
First off, Ripley announced that he saw no problem with smoothbore weapons, which had worked well enough for the army he fought with in 1812, but if everyone insisted on rifled weapons, the rifled muzzle loader would be good enough to serve. There was one little wrinkle though: it would take a year or more for the Springfield armory and various subcontractors to manufacture the needed weapons. Any mention of turning to private arms manufacturers to manufacture high-tech repeating weapons was rejected out of hand.
Faced with this dilemma, a staff officer serving under Ripley presented a very simple solution to the crisis: go to England and purchase the needed Enfields from them.
They were offering the weapons at rock-bottom prices on a cash-and-carry basis because by this time the British were already considering an upgrade to breech-loading weapons. As a result, the Union army could be fully armed within a couple of months.
Colonel James Ripley, however, went through the roof when approached with the idea. He had once fought the British, and the mere thought of now running to them for weapons was beneath contempt. In addition, Ripley openly stated his opinion that the war would be over by the end of the summer, so the purchase of several hundred thousand rifles would prove to be a total waste; the armies would already be demobilizing by the time the new weapons arrived. Finally he presented the most telling argument of all: that this was an American war and he intended to buy American. Anything less would be unpatriotic!
The staffer retreated from this tirade, mulled things over, and then returned several days later with a far more convincing argument that he knew would win the old man over. -Intelligence sources were reporting that Confederate agents were already in England negotiating to buy up every Enfield in stock, as well as contracting for additional production runs. Ripley again hit the roof, but not in panic. He responded that if the Confederates wanted to buy the damned English guns that was their business and not his.
Then he again asserted that the war would still be over before the guns would even come into play, and that American soldiers would go to battle armed with American-made guns. The staffer persisted, finally arguing that for the good of the cause, if need be, the Federal government should outbid the Confederates and thereby prevent them from acquiring the stockpile. The comment was even passed that if Ripley was still so resistant to the use of the Enfields, that at the least the guns should be purchased and dumped into the ocean so the Confederate states couldn't use them.
The staffer was dismissed and ordered never to bring the subject up again.
Three months later, at Manassas, over thirty-five thousand Union troops went into battle, armed primarily with aging smoothbores. Their final assault up Henry Hill came within mere yards of carrying the day and breaking the back of Confederate resistance. That final gallant charge, however, was shredded by the concel1trated volleys of Stonewall Jackson's men, armed primarily with newly issued Enfield Rifles that could kill at four hundred yards and were murderous at a hundred yards or less, a range at which the smoothbores of the Union were still all but useless.
Finally buckling to pressure from the administration, Ripley broke down and started to order Enfields, but by then it was too late; the initial stockpile was already in the South. One of the ironies of the war was that the British continued to manufacture Enfields, with both Union and Confederate purchasing agents waiting at the end of the assembly line. In desperation Ripley turned to the Prussians, who were more than eager to sell off their own muzzleloaders since the Prussian army had already converted to bolt-action breechloaders. These muzzleloaders, and additional arms purchased from the Belgians, were almost all condemned as more dangerous to the man behind the gun than to the target in front of it. As to the far more advanced breechloaders such as the Sharps and Burnside rifles, or the highly advanced Spencers, many Union regiments simply stepped around the bureaucracy by purchasing the weapons with their own funds, accepting with a cold, simple logic that their lives on the battlefield depended on superior firepower and they were willing to take money out of their monthly pay of twelve dollars to purchase it, along with the "expensive" ammunition Ripley kept complaining about.
One of the great mythologies of the American Civil War is that throughout the war the Confederate Armies labored under the burden of inferior equipment. This was definitely not true in the first year of the war, thanks to Colonel Ripley. Right up until the summer of 1862 Union troops, especially in the western theater of operations, fought primarily with smoothbores, while the vast majority of Confederate troops were armed with Enfields. Without the Enfields, the Southern cause might very well have collapsed on the battlefields of 1861 and early 1862. If they had been forced to confront a Union army outfitted with breechloaders and been denied access to the Enfield as well, without a doubt there never would have been a Second Manassas, an Antietam, a Gettysburg, or the bloody killing match of the Wilderness Campaign.
His army lost most of their first battles, they were outgunned and outranged by the very rifles he could have bought, he fought change so that the Gatling gun and repeating rifles barely appeared, and more than any other person his decisions may have prolonged the American Civil War for years. As for Ripley himself, who was finally pushed out in 1863, it is doubtful if he ever considered that there was an alternative to his fateful decision or a need to apologize for his gaffe later.