100 Mistakes That Changed History
The Man Who Prolonged
the Civil War
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.
Th e 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. Th e 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. Th e stated reason that he turned
down the weapons was “Buy American.” Th ere 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
When Ripley turned down the British weapons, they were
quickly snatched up by the Confederacy. Th is 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
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.