Roswell Sabine Ripley was born in Worthington, Ohio, on March 14, 1823. He was the son of Christopher and Julia Ripley. Sometime during the 1830s, Ripley’s family moved to New York.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
In 1839, at the age of sixteen, Ripley received an appointment to the United States Military Academy. Among his classmates at West Point was Ulysses S. Grant, future commander of all Union forces during the latter part of the American Civil War. Ripley graduated from the Academy on July 1, 1843, ranking seventh out of thirty-nine cadets.
U.S. Army Officer
Following graduation, the army assigned Ripley to the 3rd U.S. Artillery as a brevet second lieutenant. For the next two years, he served in garrison duty at Fort McHenry, Maryland, Fort Johnston, North Carolina, and Augusta Arsenal, Georgia. From September 20, 1845 to January 17, 1846, Ripley served as Assistant Professor of Mathematics at West Point. On March 26, 1846, the army promoted Ripley to second lieutenant.
Like many West Point graduates of his era, Ripley served in the Mexican-American War (1846 to 1848). Ripley saw extensive action at the Battles of Monterey, Veracruz, Cerro Gordo, Contreras, Churubusco, Molino del Rey, Chapultepec, and the capture of Mexico City. On March 3, 1847, the army promoted Ripley to first lieutenant. He also received brevet promotions to captain (April 18, 1847) and major (September 13, 1847) for gallantry while serving in Mexico.
Following the Mexican-American War, Ripley returned to garrison duty and served in Florida during the ongoing campaign against the Seminole Indians. During that period, he published The War with Mexico, a two-volume account of the recent war.
On December 22, 1852, Ripley married Charleston resident Alicia Middleton.
South Carolina Militia Officer
Shortly after his marriage, Ripley resigned from the army (March 2, 1853) and settled down to become a businessman in Charleston. While living there, he joined the South Carolina militia, attaining the rank of major by the time his adopted home state seceded from the Union (December 20, 1860). With hostilities on the near horizon, Governor Francis W. Pickens promoted Ripley to lieutenant colonel in the South Carolina militia, which later became the Army of South Carolina. While serving on garrison duty at Fort Moultrie and took part in the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 13, 1861, touching off the Civil War.
On August 15, 1861, Rebel officials commissioned Ripley as a brigadier general in the Confederate Army and assigned him to command the Department of South Carolina and its coastal defenses. From 1861 to 1862, Ripley served in various command positions charged with protecting the South Carolina coast. During that time, he developed a reputation as a competent yet headstrong officer who provoked bad relationships with superior officers, including Robert E. Lee and John C. Pemberton. By 1862, the relationship with Pemberton became so poisoned that Ripley requested and received reassignment to the Army of Northern Virginia on May 24.
As commander of the 5th Brigade of Major General D. H. Hill‘s division, Ripley took part in the battles of Beaver Creek Dam, Gaines’ Mill, and Malvern Hill during Union General George McClellan‘s Peninsula Campaign.
Maryland Campaign – Wounded at the Battle of Antietam
During General Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North, the Maryland Campaign, Ripley performed poorly during the Battle of South Mountain (September 14, 1862). A few days later, he received a wound in the neck during the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862). Ripley quickly returned to the fight after receiving treatment for his injury. His action earned the praise of Hill, who later wrote, “After his wound was dressed, he heroically returned to the field, and remained to the close of the day with his brigade.”
Return to South Carolina
In 1863, at Governor Pickens’ request, Ripley returned to command the First Military District in South Carolina. On April 7, 1863, his troops repelled a Union naval assault on Charleston Harbor. During his second tenure at Charleston, Ripley once again provoked poor relationships with his superior officers, including General P. G. T. Beauregard and Major General Sam Jones. In 1864, rumors emerged alleging that alcoholism had impaired Ripley’s past command decisions, prompting Beauregard to open an investigation. After reviewing the evidence, Beauregard determined that there was insufficient evidence to convene a court-martial.
As the war ground toward a halt, Ripley transferred to Charlotte, North Carolina on February 20, 1865. From there, he joined General Joseph Johnston‘s Army of the South and took part in the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Bentonville (March 19-21, 1865).
Following the Civil War, Ripley traveled to Great Britain, where he lived for nearly twenty years. During that time, he became estranged from his wife and daughter who returned to Charleston. He also suffered several financial failures that nearly drove him to bankruptcy.
In 1885, Ripley returned to the United States and established a residency in New York. Two years later, he suffered a massive stroke and died on March 29. His body was returned to Charleston, where it was buried in Magnolia Cemetery.