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“An almost inexcusable catastrophe” – Explosion at the Washington Arsenal

On June 17, 1864 an explosion at the Washington Arsenal in Washington, D.C. killed 21 women. Most were young, Irish immigrants who made the explosives used by the Union during the Civil War.

Arsenal memorial detail

Arsenal Memorial in Congressional Cemetery, 2015.

Within the labor movement, this event is seen as a milestone–not because of any changes that were made in the aftermath, but because it touches on concerns of working conditions and safety. Because the country was at war and the demand for accountability wasn’t as stringent, not much changed, unlike in the aftermath of the later fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.   There was little compensation for the victims and their families beyond what money was owed in wages and funeral expenses. No one seems to have lost their job, and working conditions basically continued in much the same fashion. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the last explosion at the Arsenal in Washington; another occurred in December of 1865.

Detail from a map of the fortifications within the District of Columbia circa 1862. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g3851s.cw0683000

Detail from a map of the fortifications within the District of Columbia circa 1862.
//hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g3851s.cw0683000

The Arsenal was located on what is now Fort McNair at Greenleaf Point in the larger area referred to as the Island – one of the oldest residential neighborhoods in the District of Columbia. The Arsenal was situated where the Potomac and the Eastern Branch (now the Anacostia) went their separate ways at the site of the penitentiary where the Lincoln conspirators were later tried and executed and which had been taken over by the Ordinance Department. The excellent location provided rail, road, and water access for materials coming and going. The Arsenal was dedicated to making ammunition for field artillery, muskets, carbines, handguns, flares, and rockets, but there were also buildings used to support the main operations, such as powder magazines and a laboratory, an ice house, carpentry and paint shops, a bakery, a blacksmith, etc. The Library of Congress has a number of images, including a stereograph of cannons and another image of what looks to be wheels/carriages that carried the cannons. I was drawn to the two images with people – one that features a few soldiers, a dog, and a number of carriages possibly intended for the Third and First Batteries of the Excelsior Brigade and another with people off in the distance.

U.S. Arsenal, Washington, D.C., north front, interior court, taken between 1861 and 1865. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004680125/

U.S. Arsenal, Washington, D.C., north front, interior court, taken between 1861 and 1865.
//www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004680125/

The explosion was covered widely in the press, including South Carolina’s Camden Daily Journal. On the day of the explosion the 3rd edition of the local Evening Star was already mentioning a probable cause and it later published a list of some of the names of the deceased. A coroner’s inquest was convened on the evening of the 17th and an article reporting on it provided more information, including the testimony of Thomas Brown, who was both a pyrotechnist and the Superintendent. The evidence and testimony from Brown and others indicated that Brown had placed a number of star flares to dry in a metallic pan close to the building where the women were working. That pan absorbed heat from the sun, heating the flares which eventually exploded – shooting many into the women’s workplace (called the choking room). The jury’s opinion was that:

superintendent, Thomas B. Brown, was guilty of the most culpable carelessness and negligence in placing highly combustible substances so near a building filled with human beings, indicating a most reckless disregard for life, which should be severely rebuked by the Government.

The June 23 Evening Star printed a notice from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to Major Benton:

The funeral and all the expenses incident to the internment of the sufferers by the recent catastrophe at the Arsenal will be paid by the Department. You will not spare any means to express the respect and sympathy of the Government for the deceased and their surviving friends.

full Arsenal memorial

Arsenal Memorial in Congressional Cemetery, 2015.

A funeral for many of the victims held at the Arsenal was well attended and included President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The funeral cortege made its way from the Arsenal, down Pennsylvania Avenue, to Congressional Cemetery (sometimes referred to as the Congressional Burying Ground). The route was lined by many of Washington’s citizens and still others crowded the cemetery.

On July 4, 1864 Congress passed Resolution number 75 (joint resolution H. Res. 118, printed in the Statutes at Large ) a Joint Resolution for the Relief of Sufferers by a late Accident at the United States Arsenal in Washington, D.C. which allocated:

the sum of two thousand dollars, be and the same is hereby, appropriated out of any money in the treasury not otherwise appropriated, for the relief of victims of such explosion, – said money to be distributed under the direction of Major Benton, commanding at said arsenal and in such manner as shall most conduce to the comfort and relief of said sufferers, according to their necessities respectively, and that he report to this house.

Arsenal memorial detail

Arsenal Memorial in Congressional Cemetery, 2015.

Within days, Arsenal employees met in order to devise “some means to erect a suitable monument to the memories of the victims of the late disaster.” Money was collected and a request for proposals was published in November. Many of the women who died were Irish-American and it seems fitting that the Flannery Brothers, a firm owned by Irish Americans, created the monument. Lot Flannery, later responsible for the statute of Lincoln placed in front of the courthouse, carved the sculpture representing “Grief” which sat atop the memorial. The dedication took place on the first anniversary of the explosion.

The awareness and memories of the event would fade over time, but the story was revisited over the years. In 1904 the Evening Star published an article that included a photograph and a list of the pallbearers. Time also affected the monument itself, eroding the names on the original inscription. A new plaque with the women’s names was installed in 2014 on the sesquicentennial of the explosion by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and the Ladies & Men of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The book The Washington Arsenal Explosion – Civil War Disaster in the Capital has a more detailed picture of events in Washington and the explosion itself.

If you are interested in the history of Washington and the city during the war, there are books on the city defenses and also on the Confederate spy Rose O’Neale Greenhow. The Library holds a large amount of material related to the Civil War. This includes a large collection of images, as well as a collection of maps, with many that are specific to the defense of Washington, fortifications, and the 1st Brigade’s defenses north of the Potomac. For teachers, there is a themed resources collection devoted to the War that includes primary sources, lesson plans, and exhibitions and presentations.

Rededication stone

Rededication stone at the Arsenal Memorial in Congressional Cemetery, 2015.

6 Comments

  1. Lisa M.
    November 5, 2016 at 10:02 am

    Thank you for this article. I am doing ancestry research and discovered that the Pinkey Scott who died in the explosion is my fourth great grandmother. What a tragedy.

  2. Tanya Anderson
    June 17, 2017 at 10:45 pm

    I would like to let people know I researched this and two other major explosions for my book, Gunpowder Girls: The True Stories of Three Civil War Tragedies. It just won a national award and is endorsed by James McPherson.

  3. Barbara Brugler
    June 18, 2017 at 10:27 am

    Thank you for the aritcle. This was such a tragic time in Washington City but it also educates the public on the role women played during the war. Those that were widows how no way to earn an income and did what they had to do. Thank you for the great work.

  4. Raina Egan
    January 25, 2018 at 3:17 pm

    Hello, I am in the process of writing a book about women who worked in arsenals during the Civil War. I was wondering if I might be able to use the ones taken in 2015 of the monument as well as the rededication monument in this article. Thanks!

  5. Lauren J Alexander
    August 2, 2019 at 6:32 pm

    I read the story of the work and peril that these women were in everyday and read their names engraved upon the stone. While researching my Irish roots I am thankful that no one is listed on that stone. But my heart has broken in a thousand pieces none the less. May they always and forever rest in peace.

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