BRIG. GEN. ROSWELL SABIN RIPLEY, CSA
by Chester A.Bennett, M.D.
Co-Founder of Camp 1535
Why is Brigadier General Roswell Sabin Ripley so controversial and, I believe, un fairly disparaged? What is the source of the negativity in the works of modern writers regarding Ripley? For example:
Ezra Warner in Generals in Gray described Ripley as ". . . a skillful and competent field officer, but forever at odds with both his superiors and subordinates . . . "
Stewart Safakis in Who Was Who in the Civil War cites Ripley’s " . . . inability to get along with his superiors."
Lawrence Hewitt, author of a biographical sketch of Ripley in The Confederate General series stated "The troublesome Roswell Ripley . . . Although a proficient field officer Ripley seldom got along with either his superiors nor his subordinates."
Clifford Dowdy in The Seven Days: The Emergence of Robert E. Lee claimed, "An opinionated man, Ripley was even more contumacious than D.H. Hill, where Hill respected some superiors, Ripley was against them all."
Today many repeat these negative assessments and the question arises: How did this all get started and is it justified? I will try to indicate the source of this negativity and later counter with positive comments and descriptions of Ripley by his contemporaries.
On December 20, 1860 South Carolina seceded from the Union. A few days later Major Robert Anderson abandoned Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island and moved his forces to Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Before leaving Fort Moultrie Major Anderson spiked the cannons, burned the gun carriages and damaged the hot-shot furnaces. Roswell Ripley, now a lieutenant colonel commanding the Battalion of Artillery in the South Carolina Militia, repaired the damage done by Anderson to put Fort Moultrie in fighting condition. On April 12, 1861, following orders from his commanding officer in Charleston, General P. G. T. Beauregard, Ripley’s artillery began the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Captain Abner Doubleday, who was at Fort Sumter, knew Ripley from the USMA and was aware that Ripley was in command at Fort Moultrie. Doubleday stated in his official report that Ripley ". . . being a man of talent and a skillful artillerist did us a great deal of harm."
Following the surrender and evacuation of Fort Sumter, Beauregard placed Ripley in charge of its repairs, and on August 15, 1861 Ripley was promoted to brigadier general.
Governor Francis Pickens wrote to President Jefferson Davis stating, "Ripley is by far the most efficient and thorough officer here, and has been working night and day to put Sumter in fighting order. I owe him more than any other single man, and the people of Charles ton know it." There is no indication that Beauregard, in overall command in South Carolina, was having any problems with Ripley.
In November 1861 Robert E. Lee replaced Beauregard who had been transferred to Virginia. Lee and Ripley differed regarding the defensive lines around Charleston. Basically Lee believed the lines should be more contracted while Ripley thought they should be as far from Charleston as practicable. Before this issue was settled Lee was transferred back to Virginia and Major General John C. Pemberton assumed command. Much to the consternation of South Carolinians, almost immediately Pemberton began abandoning the outer defensive lines around Charleston and the coastal city of Georgetown. Ripley and many influential Charlestonians were outraged and although Ripley protested, it was to no avail. Finally, believing he couldn’t work with Pemberton, Ripley requested a transfer.
The transfer granted, Ripley was placed in command of the 5th Brigade in D. H. Hills’ Division of the Army of Northern Virginia. Ripley’s brigade consisted of the 1st and 3d North Carolina and the 4th and 44th Georgia Infantry Regiments. His brigade, in action at Mechanicsville, Gaines Mill and Malvern Hill in the Peninsular Campaign, sustained heavy casualties. They next participated in Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland and fought at South Mountain and Sharpsburg. General Ripley, while rallying his brigade around the burning Mumma farm buildings at Sharpsburg, sustained a serious Minie ball wound of the throat. General D. H. Hill commented that "Ripley’s wound was dressed and he heroically returned to the field."
Following his recovery, Ripley returned to Charleston where Beauregard had re- placed the unpopular Pemberton. Both Beauregard and Governor Pickens requested Ripley’s return to command. Beauregard even recommended Ripley’s promotion to major general which was denied. After Ripley’s return in October 1862 all went well until May 1863. At that time Ripley criticized the slow progress of the defensive works on Morris Island, site of Battery Wagner the subject of the motion picture Glory. Ripley directed his complaints against Beauregard’s engineers and indirectly at Major D. B. Harris who was a personal friend of Beauregard. Charges and countercharges ensued. Beauregard sup-ported Harris and the engineers and rebuked Ripley, telling him to "leave the engineering duties to the engineers."
Possibly generated by this dispute an anonymous report designed to discredit Ripley surfaced. It criticized Ripley’s drinking and his "rollicking habits." During this time Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Fremantle of His Majesty’s Coldstream Guards was in Charles- ton on his three month tour of the Confederacy. Fremantle described Ripley as ". . . a jovial character, very fond of the good things of this life, but it is said that he never allows this pro- propensity to interfere with his military duties, in the performance of which he displays both zeal and talent. He has the reputation of being and excellent artillery officer, and although by birth a Northerner, he is a red-hot and indefatigable Rebel. . . . Nearly all the credit of the Charleston fortifications is due to him . . . notwithstanding his northern birth and occasional rollicking habits, he is generally popular. "
As Ripley had warned, Union forces gained a foothold on unprepared Morris Island and later attacked Battery Wagner. Although the Confederates repulsed the attack by the
54th Massachusetts Infantry and other regiments, a prolonged siege ultimately forced them to evacuate the battery.
Ripley and Beauregard had a second confrontation in November 1863. Ripley again criticized the engineers for lagging defense construction; this time on Sullivans Island. Before this dispute was fully resolved, Beauregard was again transferred to Virginia and replaced by Major General Sam Jones. On August 24, 1864 Jones commended Ripley for his actions during the Federal attacks the previous month. Then in September, during General Jones absence, Ripley received orders from a Major Lay of Jones’ staff. Ripley didn’t believe the orders had been authorized by Jones and according to Lay "in a violent, rude, and insulting manner . . . refused to obey or receive orders from headquarters." Lay attributed the confrontation to Ripley’s drinking, not the authorization issue. Lay then claimed Ripley had been drinking during the previous July attacks for which Ripley had just been commended. Unfortunately for Ripley, Jones backed Lay and the situation deteriorated.
Surprisingly, Beauregard was sent to Charleston to investigate the situation. Beauregard attempted to discredit Ripley alleging he had a drinking problem. However, Ripley’s staff officers supported him fully and the charges were dropped. Beauregard next tried to have Ripley transferred and replaced by D. B. Harris. Charlestonians rallied to Ripley’s support and circulated petitions stating in part that "his removal would be a public calamity," Endorsed by Governor M. L. Bonham, as well as Senators Barnwell and Orr, the petitions were forwarded to Secretary of War Seddon and President Jefferson Davis.
Beauregard countered with a scathing attack on Ripley, "Brig. Gen. Ripley is active, energetic, intelligent, ambitious, cunning and fault finding. He complains of every command- ing officer he has served under, and has quarreled (or had difficulties) with almost every one of his immediate subordinate commanders." The facts dispute this assessment; however, Beauregard’s attack appears in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, and has been cited repeatedly by many writers. This most likely is the source of their negativity regarding Ripley.
In marked contrast many of Ripley’s contemporaries were much more positive in their assessments of him.
George C. Eggleston, who had served in Charleston in an independent battery, wrote A Rebels’ Recollections after the war. He described Ripley as being ". . . portly in person, of commanding and almost pompous presence, and yet, when one came to know him was as easy and unassuming as if he had not been a brigadier general at all. . . General Ripley was a brave, earnest man and a fine officer, of a sort of which no army can have too many."
Former Ripley staff officer Colonel E. M. Seabrook stated that "Ripley always en-
deavored to bestow upon his subordinates, officers and men, the full measure of praise due them."
Former USMA classmate and Confederate General Samuel G. French commented, "He was generous, open-hearted, outspoken; harbored no resentments. His cheerful presence dispelled all unnecessary solemnity . . . his generous and unselfish disposition formed friendships among his classmates that lasted through life . . . Above these he was honest, upright in all his dealings and, I think, pure of heart,
Following the battle of Malvern Hill, a Mr. Boykin criticized General Ripley in a Macon Georgia newspaper for the losses incurred by the Georgia regiments in his brigade. He believed that Ripley had ordered a frontal assault on fortified Union artillery, Captain Joseph B. Reese of the 44th Georgia Infantry responded, "The attack was ordered by General D.H. Hill, not Ripley. Mr. Boykin does General Ripley an injustice. The general is a man of discretion as well as bravery. Although blustery and rough in his manner, yet he loves his men. He put himself with his men and on the charge he went, showing willing- ness to take his chances with the men. "
As we have seen, this trait resulted in Ripley being wounded in action at Sharpsburg.
After the war Ripley spent nearly twenty years in England. These were difficult times for him especially in the early years. Ripley went bankrupt, his wife left him, and she and their daughter Alicia returned to Charleston. Gradually Ripley’s situation improved and after a Democrat had been elected President, in 1885 Ripley returned to New York City. There he joined a group of ex-Union and Confederate officers who made the New York Hotel their home and headquarters. There is no evidence that Ripley ever returned to Charleston to see his wife or daughter again.
On March 29, 1887, after a hearty breakfast, Ripley suffered a massive stroke and died that night. He had expressed a desire to be buried in Charleston, and when notified Mayor W. A. Courtenay, responded that ". . . the city would esteem it a high privilege to carry out the wishes of the superb old soldier who while he lived loved Charleston." Ripley’s remains were transported to Charleston by rail. City newspapers reported the death of Charleston’s Gallant Defender twenty-two years after he had left the city.
The funeral service was held on Sunday April 3 and all city and port flags were flown at half-mast. The bells of St. Michaels tolled continuously from 8:00 AM until the service at 10:00 AM. Ripley’s pallbearers included several of his former staff officers and former war-time governor A. G. Magrath. Ripley’s wife did not attend the funeral, but his daughter, Alicia, did. The Charleston News and Courier reported that, "The streets were lined for a long distance on every side of the church through respect for the departed soldier. The church was filled. The city paid its debt of gratitude to its historic defender. It has been years since an event of so much significance has taken place in this old city."
In 1894, seven years after Ripley’s burial in Magnolia Cemetery, the Confederate Survivors Association erected a monument to him. During the war Henry Timrod, the Poet Laureate of the Confederacy, had written a poem extolling Ripley. Lines from the poem are reproduced on the monument and Ripley’s place of birth, Worthington, Ohio is prominently displayed.
Admittedly Ripley had faults, shortcomings and was probably too outspoken, but he would not tolerate inefficiency or incompetence. He directed criticism at those whom he felt were inept or negligent. The citizens of Charleston resoundingly expressed their appreciation and devotion to Ripley at the time of his death, some twenty-two after the fall of the Confederacy. Many participated in the defense of Charleston during the War for Southern Independence, but one of the most constant and resolute was Roswell Sabin Ripley.
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