Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Review of Bennett - "RESOLUTE REBEL: General Roswell S. Ripley, Charleston's Gallant Defender"

[Resolute Rebel: General Roswell S. Ripley, Charleston's Gallant Defender by Chet Bennett (University of South Carolina Press, 2017). Cloth, 4 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:/. ISBN:978-1-61117-754-1. $49.99]

When it comes to published biographies of Civil War brigadier generals, Confederate figures have always outnumbered their Union counterparts. Before now, a Confederate general not accorded that honor has been Roswell Sabin(e) Ripley. If he is remembered much at all today, it is primarily for his important role in establishing, improving, and directly commanding the Charleston, SC harbor defenses throughout most of the war. His life and various careers in the military and civilian worlds are the subject of Chet Bennett's Resolute Rebel: General Roswell S. Ripley, Charleston's Gallant Defender.

Roswell Ripley was born in Worthington, Ohio in 1823, and his family was living in New York when Ripley received his West Point appointment. Though Bennett notes some events in Ripley's early life that would suggest the type of ingrained independent streak that would naturally clash with authority figures, the young man was an excellent student at the U.S. Military Academy, ranking high in engineering and science subjects and graduating 7th in the Class of 1843.

During the war with Mexico, Ripley fought with both Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, ending up with the brevet rank of major by the conclusion of the conflict. While he performed well in the field, he's chiefly recognized for authoring a two-volume military and political history of the war titled The War with Mexico, the only comprehensive account of the war written by a participant. Written in a strong pro-Democrat/anti-Whig vein, the book did get him into trouble with some colleagues. Ripley was a partisan of political general Gideon Pillow, and the staunch Tennessee Democrat's intervention enabled Ripley to secure a year's leave in order to complete the writing project. This didn't sit well with some fellow officers (perhaps most notably D.H. Hill, who the author argues held a permanent grudge against Ripley for allegedly defaming Scott's role in the war).

During this time and throughout the rest of his antebellum career, Ripley fairly abused the army's already generous leave policy. Angering his superiors, he spent half his time in the service on leave, making things worse by constantly asking for lengthy extensions to complete personal business. His resignation from the army in 1853 was also not handled well, earning a powerful enemy in the form of Adjutant General Samuel Cooper, who years later as the highest-ranking Confederate general would be well positioned to exact petty payback for Ripley's many professional transgressions.

While posted to Fort Moultrie in the early 1850s, Ripley met and married a local widow, Alicia Sparks. After leaving the army in 1853, he settled in Charleston and engaged in commercial pursuits. During the mid-1850s, he also involved himself in the international arms trade, conducting business back and forth between Britain and the U.S. and establishing contacts that he would later try to exploit as an impoverished ex-Confederate general.

The book does not discuss the reasons behind Ripley's decision to join South Carolina's state forces (and later the CSA Provisional Army) at any length, though one might assume that Ripley, like many other transplanted northerners who married into southern families, had adopted local culture and states' rights ideology during his residence in the Deep South. Whatever the justification, Ripley's choice did not appear to be a personally painful one. Unlike General John C. Pemberton, who was for a time Ripley's superior in Charleston, Ripley was not viewed by his fellow Confederates with suspicion due to his northern birth, or at least Bennett did not find any overt evidence of that issue playing a significant role in any of Ripley's personal conflicts.

What is covered at great length in Resolute Rebel is Ripley's Civil War service, the great majority of which was spent commanding the most important sub-district of the Charleston harbor defenses. Commissioned a Confederate brigadier general in 1861, Ripley was responsible for defending the direct land and sea approaches to Charleston. He was directly involved in arranging the heavy batteries and fortifications at a number of critically important locations, including Morris Island and forts Moultrie and Sumter. While officers ranked above and even below Ripley are more often recognized in modern studies for repulsing a series of Union attacks on the harbor between 1862 and 1865, Bennett awards Ripley the lion's share of the credit for rendering the harbor itself essentially impregnable to Union combined operations. In the author's view, Ripley organized the barrier island defenses to the best of his ability given the limited resources available, though the general's initiatives were frequently hampered by uncooperative engineer officers and poorly conceived directives from above that led to the abandonment of key positions.

Though it seems to be the case that Ripley got along well with most of his direct subordinates, his relations with others could be more problematic. A less than tactful reply to South Carolina governor Francis Pickens's unsolicited advice on military affairs at Charleston led to a breach between the two. It also resulted in a letter from Pickens that attempted to undermine Ripley by driving a wedge between the general and his department commander at the time, Robert E. Lee. In uncritical fashion, D.S. Freeman incorporated Pickens's invented antagonism into his classic Lee biography, but Bennett's research failed to uncover evidence of any mutual dislike or professional conflict that might have emerged between Lee and Ripley during their brief time together.

General P.G.T. Beauregard's unstable personality seems to have extended to his relations with Roswell Ripley. During the war, Beauregard would often bounce back and forth between praise of Ripley (even asking for his promotion to major general) and biting criticism. Much of the shared friction centered around the engineer officers assigned to Ripley's district. These men answered only to Beauregard's headquarters (and were personal favorites of the department commander) but were frequently criticized by Ripley for sloth and incompetence. Since all plans for fortifications had to be approved by department headquarters, the situation with the engineers was a constant source of exasperation to Ripley. The conflict came to a head over the lower defenses of Morris Island. While Beauregard, his supporters, and some modern historians have blamed Ripley for the failure to secure adequate defenses for this sector, Bennett seems to make a strong case that Beauregard's engineers were largely unresponsive to Ripley's repeated attempts to establish a line of batteries and earthworks at the southern tip of Morris Island that would be strong enough to repel Union attacks from adjacent Folly Island.

Not all of Ripley's Confederate career was spent in and around Charleston. In 1862, Ripley also fought in the field with the Army of Northern Virginia as a brigade commander in D.H. Hill's division. He led his men in a hopeless supporting attack at Beaver Dam Creek, only to be falsely accused by old enemy D.H. Hill of staying back in the rear and not accompanying his men in the assault. As for Ripley's maligned performance (from D.H. Hill and others) at South Mountain, the author agrees that it was not the general's best performance, but accounts of his men's movements are contradictory and there is nothing to support the accusation that Ripley deliberately maneuvered so as to avoid fighting. At Antietam, Ripley dutifully advanced his brigade into the Mumma Farm firestorm and was promptly shot in the neck. After a brief recovery period, he returned to Charleston. Constrained as he was by the opportunities given him, Ripley didn't have much of a chance to display his potential as a rising commander in the field, and Bennett does not attempt to make him into some kind of untapped and underutilized resource in this regard. Unlike many generals stuck on garrison duty, Ripley did not lobby for more active service in any of the South's field armies. Perhaps he saw his own limitations or just preferred the administrative and engineering aspects of warfare.

As detailed as they are, the chapters specifically addressing Ripley's Civil War service would have benefited from a more diverse source foundation. The endnotes to several chapters consist almost entirely of O.R. references. The bibliography lists a substantial international collection of archival resources, and it's unfortunate that the author did not integrate more of this category of materials into the text of the Civil War chapters, as well as cast a wider net over the relevant published literature. Also, the author frequently mentions Ripley's letters in relation to specific events but does not extensively quote from them.

Ripley's reputation as a heavy drinker and how it might have negatively impacted his military capacity is lightly addressed in the book. As was the situation with U.S. Grant and others, it would come as no surprise that enemies would use allegations of drunkenness as a weapon to wield against Ripley. Like many of his contemporaries, Ripley was by many accounts quite fond of alcohol, but Bennett didn't find any solid evidence that the vice had an adverse affect on the general's performance of his duties, and the author's analysis of the topic pretty much ends there.

Like many former Confederate generals, Ripley did not find the return to civilian life remunerative. When the Confederacy crumbled, Ripley took his small family to England. There, he became involved in a scheme to purchase the rights to Confederate ordnance manufacturing equipment in British hands and use it to embark upon a new career in arms manufacturing. Unfortunately, the plan crumbled and lawsuits abounded, leaving Ripley bankrupt. Making things worse, his wife eventually tired of the poverty and humiliation, and the couple separated. Ripley also attempted to support himself through writing. His articles were less about enhancing his own martial reputation (or refuting the unkind barbs from Beauregard and his proxies) and more about supporting the justice of the Confederate cause, though it doesn't appear that Ripley's relatively modest publications became a particularly influential part of the growing "Lost Cause" literature.

After nearly two decades of mostly living off the generosity of British friends, Ripley finally returned to what he knew best (big guns), partnering with British engineer William Hope to successfully gain patent protections (both in the U.K. and in the U.S.) for improved metallurgical methods, a breech-loading cannon design, and better artillery ammunition. Details are sparse, but Ripley must have had some success later in life, as he apparently lived in New York City during his final years in some semblance of sound financial footing. In 1887, he suffered a massive stroke and died soon after, his body transported to Charleston for burial in Magnolia Cemetery. Casting aside continued attempts by Beauregard and associates to minimize Ripley's contributions, the citizens of Charleston fondly remembered his defense of their city, and they erected a fine memorial in Ripley's honor.

Though not likely to be celebrated as a literary star or inventor, Roswell Ripley's Civil War service was certainly significant and distinct enough to merit a modern full-length biography. For nearly the entire Civil War, Ripley was at the forefront of keeping the "Cradle of Secession" in Confederate hands, turning away numerous Union attempts at capturing it. Resolute Rebel greatly benefits from author Chet Bennett's extensive research into U.K. archives, fully documenting for the first time Ripley's activities abroad, first during the 1850s and then for the period stretching nearly two decades after the end of the Civil War. In addition to being the first truly comprehensive treatment of Roswell Ripley's life, Bennett's study is also a vitally useful addition to the Civil War Charleston literature.

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  1. I am just finishing this for a review in Civil War News, and my views match yours almost entirely.

  2. Drew: Thanks for yet another review which gives a prospective buyer what he/she needs to know. I couldn't help noticing your discussion about the author's treatment of Ripley's fondness for alcohol in light of your prior statement that he was "shot in the neck" at Antietam. (:

    1. By a spent high ball no less.

    2. You are showing your age with "high ball."


    3. I had to google it to make sure it really was what I thought it was (turns out it wasn't, but close enough!). Pretty lame but the only counter I could think of off the cuff.

  3. In current terminology, "likes"...

  4. Just finished Unholy Sabbath by Brian Jordan. His account of Ripley at South Mountain raises serious questions about Ripley's competence there. Ribley's brigade essentially marched itself out of the fight at Fox's Gap where the Confederates desperately needed his help. No wonder D.H. Hill was so upset.

    1. Yes, he discusses that at some length in the book and considers it Ripley's worst performance of the war.

    2. John, I hope you will leave a review on the Unholy Sabbath volume. It helps a lot.



    3. Will do, Ted. Enjoyed it very much. One indexing issue. Though references to Roswell Ripley are sprinkled in the Jordan book, the index has only one page reference (p. 197) and that is to a Robert Ripley. As Ripley and Robert Rhodes are mentioned together in the same sentence on that page, the bleary eyed indexer juxtaposed their first names. Sorry to be picayune, but like you I am a recovering attorney and former law review editor so I obsess over such details!

    4. Rodes, not Rhodes. Darn that auto correct feature!


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