James Wolfe Ripley was born on 10 December 1794, one of the very few Army officers of the Civil War era to be born in the eighteenth century. A native of Windham County, Connecticut, he entered West Point in May 1813, and graduated thirteen months later. Formal instruction for his class was cut short because of the Army's pressing need for additional junior officers in the War of 1812. Until 1832, Ripley was an artillery officer, serving first at Sackett's Harbor, New York, and later under Andrew Jackson's command during the Seminole War and in the invasion of Florida. On one occasion, Ripl ey insisted that Jackson follow standard procedures in a procurement matter, but promptly backed down when his irate superior threatened him with bodily harm! In 1832, he was in command at Ft. Moultrie, South Carolina, when civil war threatened over the nullification issue. Ripley assiduously prepared his post against possible attack while simultaneously winning the esteem of South Carolinians for his tact and diplomacy during a very difficult time. This feat brought him favorable attention from the Commanding General of the Army, General Winfield Scott. Within a year, Ripley was commanding the Kennebec Arsenal in Maine, a post he held until 1842.
He then became superintendent of the Springfield Armory (1842-1854), regarded by some historians as "Ripley's Monument." Here he improved the buildings and grounds, increased production while reducing costs, and was instrumental in developing the 1855 model .58 caliber rifled musket which was later to be the principal weapon for Union infantrymen during the Civil War. He was unpopular in some quarters because of his insistence that Army regulations be followed and abuses in the workplace be curbed, but he received consistent support from his superiors because of his outstanding accomplishments. He subsequently served for shorter periods as Chief of Ordnance for the Army's Pacific Department and as Inspector of Arsenals.
Called to Washington to supersede Colonel Henry K. Craig as Chief of Ordnance on 23 April 1861, the 66 year old Ripley quickly determined that it was more essential to get sufficient numbers of standard weapons to troops in the field than it was to test and develop the host of new weapons presented to his department for consideration. This policy subjected Ripley to considerable criticism from his contemporaries, and some historians have been sharply critical of what they consider Ripley's too conservative approach to his task. What is often overlooked is that a good deal of the Union's production capacity and of its existing stocks of weapons were lost to the Confederacy at the onset of the Civil War.
Ripley strongly felt that the Ordnance Department and the Army were already contending with an overabundance of small arms of varying calibers and degrees of usefulness, to say nothing of the bewildering array of cartridges to fit them. The situation was even worse with respect to artillery projectiles. Ripley was a "zealous and incorruptible" Chief of Ordnance, but his unbending opposition to breechl oaders ultimately brought about his forced retirement on 15 September 1863. Nevertheless, Ripley must be credited with having produced or procured more than adequate supplies of infantry and artillery weapons despite the very considerable political wrangling and confusion to which he and his office were continually subjected at a critical time. He and his staff also managed to make some improvements in the design of the standard infantry rifle during his tenure as Chief of Ordnance. Ripley remained in uniform and served as Inspector of Armament of Forts on the New England Coast until his final retirement at age 75 in 1869. Ripley was brevetted a brigadier general in July, 1861 and a major general in March, 1865. He died in Hartford, Connecticut on 15 March 1870. General Ripley was the uncle of Roswell S. Ripley (1823-1887), a Confederate Brigadier General.