Ringgold was born in Washington County, Maryland, at "Fountain Rock", the 18,000-acre estate of his father, Samuel Ringgold, a Maryland politician who later served in the U.S. House of Representatives.
He entered the U.S. Navy in 1819 and commanded the schooner Weazel in action against West Indies pirates during the late 1820s. He became a lieutenant May 17, 1828 and that year served on Vandalia in the Pacific. He went on to serve on the Adams in the Mediterranean.
During 1838-42, he participated in the Wilkes Expedition in the Pacific, commanding Porpoise from 1840 at the invitation of the head of the project, Charles Wilkes.
When the expedition visited Fiji, they captured Vendoni, a chief on the islands who had inspired some Fijians to capture and eat 11 crewmen on a ship seven years before. Soon afterward, Fijians on the island of Malolo ambushed and killed two officers of the expedition, and the Americans took revenge. Wilkes' ship grounded on the north side of the island, but Ringgold led 80 men from the south side. Women and children were spared, but about 87 Fijians were killed before the rest surrendered. Two villages were destroyed.
The expedition visited California that summer. On August 19, 1841, Ringgold led a 60-man party exploring San Francisco Bay watershed for 20 days. The party got about as far as Colusa, California. Ringgold, who returned to New York shortly after the rest of the expedition, had been gone three years and 11 months at sea. He and his crew had sailed 95,000 miles (153,000 km) and lost only two men.
He was promoted to commander on July 16, 1849 and began the definitive survey of the San Francisco Bay region, suddenly important because of the discovery of gold in the area. The survey began in August 1849, with Ringgold commanding the chartered brig Col. Fremont.
He returned to the fleet with the rank of captain during the Civil War. While in command of the frigate Sabine on November 1, 1861, he effected the rescue of a battalion of 400 Marines from Maryland whose transport steamer, Governor, was sinking during a severe storm near Port Royal, South Carolina.
In February 1862, he was a part of the search and rescue of the ship of the line Vermont which had lost her rudder in a storm. For these rescues, Ringgold received commendations from the Maryland Legislature and the U.S. Congress, along with a gold medal from the Life Saving Benevolent Association.
Promoted to commodore on July 16, 1862, he was sent (still on the Sabine), to cruise the Azores, Cape Verde Islands, the coast of Brazil and then back to New York in a fruitless search for the Confederate raider CSS Alabama from November 1862 to February 1863. In mid-1863, Ringgold's assignment was to search (again unsuccessfully) in the vicinity of Bermuda and then the New England coast for the bark Tacony, another Confederate raider.
He retired on August 20, 1864, and was placed on the rear admiral (retired) list in 1866 (a promotion that was given to all commanders of squadrons). In retirement, he lived at 18 East Eighteenth Street in New York City. He died of a stroke on April 29, 1867.