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Volume 37, No. 3 – March 2024

The President’s Message:

Come One! Come All!

On Wednesday, March 13, 2024 Patrick Falci, actor, historian and lecturer, will be our guest speaker.  He gained fame in the role of General A.P. Hill in the movie “Gettysburg” and was historical advisor for director and screenwriter, Ron Maxwell. Patrick’s topic will be The Four Interments of General A.P. Hill.  As Patrick says, “You can’t keep a good man down.”

General Robert E. Lee’s favorite pound cake will be served after the program. 

I look forward to seeing you at the meeting.

Gerridine LaRovere

Colonel Ripley and Munitions

As there was no meeting in February, Gerridine provided us with this interesting story about a favorite topic of mine, logistics.

Colonel James Ripley might very well have been responsible for prolonging the Civil War.  He assumed control of the Ordinance Department of the U.S. Army in 1861.  Ripley was disdainful of any new innovations proposed for arming the armies of the Union.  He used every bureaucratic means possible to block the introduction of breech-loading or the rapid-firing Spencer rifle.  He claimed these weapons would only encourage men to “waste ammunition which is expensive.”

The war caught the Federal army completely flatfooted.  Some later claimed that Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War under President James Buchanan, had in fact deliberately sabotaged key decisions for preparation while still in office.  The army was less than 20,000 strong, but a stockpile of modern weapons was nonexistent.  A number of the model 1855 Springfield’s on hand were in Southern armories.  Weapons dating back to the Revolution in various state armories were all that were available.

Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers when the Civil War started.  The biggest problem facing the Union was not getting volunteers but rather how to arm them.  This question landed on Colonel Ripley’s desk.

Ripley saw no problem with smooth-bore weapons.  They worked well enough for the army in 1812.  If everyone insisted on rifled weapons, the rifled muzzleloader would be good enough for the troops.  However, it would take a year or more for the Springfield Armory and other subcontractors to manufacture the needed weapons.  Suggestions that the Army engage private arms makers to make high-tech repeating weapons were rejected.  Faced with this dilemma, a staff officer serving under Ripley presented a simple solution: purchase the needed Enfield’s from Britain.  They offered the weapons at an extremely low price on a cash and carry basis.  This solution guaranteed that Union Army could be fully armed within a couple of months.

Ripley was livid when he was presented with the idea.  He stated that in his opinion the War would be over by the end of summer.  The purchase of several hundred thousand rifles would prove to be a total waste because the armies would be demobilizing by the time the weapons arrived.  He presented the argument that this was an American war and he intended to buy American.

The staffer retreated from this tirade and returned several days later with a far more convincing argument.  Intelligence sources were reporting that Confederate agents were in England negotiating to buy every Enfield in stock and contracting for additional production runs. 

Ripley was angered.  He said, “If Confederates wanted to buy the damn guns, it was their business and not mine.”  He asserted that the war would be over before the guns would arrive and American soldiers would go into battle with American guns.  The staffer argued that the Federal government should outbid the Confederates and prevent them from stockpiling the weapons.  Ripley was so against buying the Enfields that he told the staffer never to mention it again.  Others felt that the guns should be purchased and, if need be, dumped into the ocean to keep them out of Confederate hands.

At Manassas, 35,000 Union troops went into battle with aging smoothbores.  The final assault up Henry Hill came within yards of success.  The gallant charge was shredded by concentrated volleys of Stonewall Jackson’s men who were fighting with newly issued Enfields.  The smoothbores of the Union were all but useless.

Buckling from the administration’s pressure, Ripley started to order Enfield’s.  By then it was too late.  The original order was already in Southern hands.  The British continued to manufacture Enfields.  Union and Confederate purchasing agents waited at the end of the assembly line to purchase them.

In desperation, Ripley turned to the Prussians who were eager to sell muzzleloaders that were replaced by bolt-action breechloaders.  The muzzleloaders were condemned by European armies as more dangerous to the man behind the gun rather than the target in front of them.  The breechloaders such as the Sharps, Burnside, or Spencers were avoided by Union soldiers.  They simply bypassed the bureaucracy by purchasing their own rifles.

One of the great myths of the Civil War was that Confederates had inferior equipment.  This was not true during the first year of the War.  Until the summer of 1862, Union troops primarily fought with smoothbores, while Confederate troops were armed with Enfields.  If Confederate forces met a Union Army with only breechloaders, there could have been a different outcome to the War.  The Union army lost most of their first battles; they were outgunned and outranged by the very rifle Ripley refused to purchase.  He dismissed the need to buy the Gatling gun and repeating rifle.  Ripley’s poor decisions may have prolonged the War.  He was finally pushed out of office in 1863.  It is doubtful he ever recognized that his bad judgment had had negative consequences.  To his way of thinking, standing firm on not buying British rifles was a sound idea.


Last changed: 02/26/24