SC

Palmetto Past & Present: South Carolina’s ‘Buckeye Rebel’

The story of Roswell Sabin Ripley …

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Another Confederate Memorial Day is upon us. It’s the state holiday when we pause and remember all that South Carolina went through during the “Late Unpleasantness,” more commonly known as the War Between the States.

The Palmetto State contributed some 60,000 men to Confederate ranks. They included such heroic figures as Wade Hampton III, Camden’s courageous Joseph Kershaw, the kindhearted Richard Rowland Kirkland (the “Angel of Marye’s Heights”), and the ill-fated Barnard Bee — giants in history, to be sure.

Then, there was Roswell Sabin Ripley. Chances are you’ve never heard of him. But, as we shall soon see, he is in a class all by himself.

Ripley’s story began in Worthington, Ohio, a little town outside Columbus, where he was born in 1823. His family eventually moved to New York State. He studied at West Point, where he graduated in 1843, finishing seventh in a class of 39 (whose members included Ulysses S. Grant).

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A photo portrait of Roswell Sabin Ripley, courtesy of The National Park Service.

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Commissioned a second lieutenant and serving as an artillery instructor, Ripley didn’t have long to wait for action. The Mexican War began three years later. He fought in eight major battles -including at Chapultepec, remembered today as “the Halls of Montezuma.” He was twice promoted for bravery. 

After that, Ripley served in the Seminole War in Florida and had garrison duty at various outposts – including Fort Moultrie. While stationed on Sullivans Island, he met Alicia Middleton Sparks – a wealthy widow from Charleston – and married her in 1852. Ripley gave up the army the next year to manage his rich wife’s properties. For better or worse, the Lowcountry was stuck with him. He also dabbled in different business ventures (including acting as co-publisher of a Baltimore newspaper) and even squeezed in time to be a major in South Carolina’s militia.

The secession crisis was looming and in a classic case of “when in Rome, do as the Romans,” the Buckeye State native passionately supported states’ rights. 

While debate continues as to the root motivations, Abraham Lincoln succinctly summed up what happened next: “And the war came.”

Like most of his neighbors, Ripley put on a gray uniform and offered his services to the South. He commanded the cannon fire from Fort Moultrie aimed at Fort Sumter in April 1861. With the conflict now underway, he became a full-fledged brigadier general that August. From December 1861 until May 1862, he was the Confederate commander at Charleston, S.C. His tenure included a stinging embarrassment, though: Slave Robert Smalls stole the steamer Planter literally out from under Ripley’s nose — his headquarters was on the Charleston wharf — and chugged to safety amid nearby Union naval blockaders offshore.

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“Vintage engraving from 1878 showing the attack on Fort Sumter. The Battle of Fort Sumter (April 12-13, 1861) was the bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter, near Charleston, South Carolina, that started the American Civil War.”

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Ripley was quickly hustled off to the front in Virginia. A brave soldier, he was severely wounded in the neck at Antietam/Sharpsburg in September 1862. He recovered, though, and by November 1862 he was assisting in the defense of Fredericksburg. Ripley’s battlefield performance was only so-so at best, purportedly, and strings were pulled behind the scenes to hasten his return to Charleston in January 1863. 

His return coincided with the removal of the position’s superior officer, general John C. Pemberton. In eight months as commander of the Southeast coast, Pemberton had managed to rub everyone who mattered in the Holy City the wrong way. His abrupt, in-your-face demeanor was worsened by the fact that he was tainted in Charlestonian eyes by the unforgivable sin of having been born and raised a Pennsylvania Yankee – with two brothers fighting in Lincoln’s army to boot.

Apparently, having married into Lowcountry aristocracy atoned for the sin of Ripley’s Buckeye birth, and so it was conveniently overlooked.

Ripley plunged into his duties with vigor, bolstering Charleston’s defenses. It was a good thing, too, because Union forces attacked by sea on April 7 with a formidable force of 9 state-of-the-art warships, including 7 monitors and the USS New Ironsides, one of the Navy’s most powerful vessels. The artillery fire Ripley directed sank one ironclad and sent the rest limping back out to sea.

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And so it went for Ripley until, in the war’s waning weeks, Sherman’s advance compelled the Confederates to evacuate Charleston in February 1865. He was with Southern forces when they finally surrendered in North Carolina in April.

Ripley spent the next 20 years in England pursuing business ventures. Returning to the United States in the late 1880s, he settled in New York City before dying from a stroke soon afterward in 1887. He was 64.

Revisionist historians damaged his military reputation in the latter part of the twentieth century (one called him a “coward”); however recent historians have revisited his record – with some concluding he performed somewhat better than he’s given credit for.

“Ripley was a skillful and competent field officer but forever at odds with both his superiors and subordinates,”  historian Ezra J. Warner wrote in 1959.

In 2004, a historic marker commemorating Ripley was placed in front of the house where he was born and raised in Worthington, Ohio. There it stayed until 2017 – when it fell victim to the far left’s relentless push to erase anyone and anything with whom it disagrees.

Born and raised in the North, a soldier for the South and reclaimed by the North later in his life, the South ultimately wound up with Ripley for good when was buried in Charleston. Today, he rests under a massive stone monument in beautiful Magnolia Cemetery.

A memorial that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon …

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Mark Powell (Provided)

J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former TV journalist, government communications veteran, and a political consultant. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Got a tip or a story idea for Mark? Email him at mark@fitsnews.com.

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1 comment

Charles May 10, 2024 at 12:15 pm

Confederate Memorial Day is not a time to pause and remember all that South Carolina went through during the Late Unpleasantness, more commonly known as the War Between the States.

Confederate Memorial Day (sometimes known as Decoration Day) originated by Ladies’ Memorial Associations to care for the graves of Confederate dead. May 10th is the anniversary of the death of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson.

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