Just as Antietam would prove the costliest day in military dead, an Arsenal explosion would produce the largest civilian death tally in the Civil War.
Throughout the Union and Confederacy on Sept. 18, 1862, front-page news was the Battle of Antietam, but not in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Around 2 p.m. on September 17, 1862, a series of powerful explosions ripped through the U.S. Army Arsenal in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. Residents of Allegheny and nearby Pittsburgh, many of whom had become aware of a major battle taking place that day at Antietam Creek in Maryland, believed this was a Confederate invasion.
But the explosion was not from a Confederate attack.
By 1862 the U.S. Army regularly employed women and young girls to make cartridges at a number of arsenals situated in urban areas in the North. They were dubbed the “Noble Union Girls”.
The roof of the Arsenal building where young women and girls worked assembling cartridges had collapsed, and flames enveloped its remains. Powerful blasts caused by exploding barrels of gunpowder had blown out the windows and doors of surrounding buildings.
One large structure, known as the laboratory, “was laid in ruins — having been heaved up by the force of the explosion and then fallen in fragments, after which it caught fire and was consumed.”
Witness J.R. Frick had been delivering different types of powder to the various workrooms in the laboratory where armaments were assembled that afternoon. “I saw a fire [in the] powder on the ground between the wheels of the wagon and the [laboratory] porch,” he said, according to the Sept. 20 edition of the Pittsburgh Gazette. “The powder in the roadway … evidently ignited from the fore wheel of my wagon. …”
He also said he recalled seeing several barrels of powder that had been left uncovered.
The fire from the loose powder spread to one of the open barrels, Mr. Frick said. When it blew up, “the action of the air cast me out of the wagon against the palings of the fence,” but he was unburned and uninjured by debris.
Eyewitnesses described a ghastly scene. Terrified girls ran screaming from the building with their clothes on fire, their faces blackened and unrecognizable. Some jumped from the windows, while panic-stricken workers trampled others under foot. Many of the witnesses tried to help the victims, who pleaded with onlookers to tear the burning clothes from their bodies. Mary Jane Black was just returning to her post after picking up her pay when she heard screams and, turning in the direction of the sound, saw “two girls behind me; they were on fire; their faces were burning and blood running from them. I pulled the clothes off one of them; while I was doing this, the other one ran up and begged me to cover her.”
Onlookers discovered remains riddled by shells, cartridges and Mini balls. Bodies as well as stray limbs, bones and scraps of clothing were found hundreds of feet from the explosion—on the streets, in the Allegheny River and suspended in the trees that lined the arsenal grounds. Newspaper reporters searched for words to describe the pitiful remains of the victims:
“In some places [bodies] lay in heaps, and burnt as rapidly as pine wood, until the flames were extinguished by the firemen. In other places nothing could be seen but the whitened and consuming bones, the intensity of the heat having consumed every particle of flesh. The steel bands remaining from the hoop skirts of the unfortunate girls marked the place where many of them had perished.”
More than a year later, it was confirmed that 78 people, mostly women and young girls, had actually died in the accident. The remains of most were never identified, but the majority of the victims were young.
Before many of the fallen could be identified—and before anyone could be sure how many had actually died—townspeople turned out to bury the victims at a ceremony held in front of what was described as a “large deep pit” holding the remains of some of the fallen women. The Rev. Richard Lea, whose church was close to the arsenal, pleaded with them to forget the grim disaster scene and instead remember how they had come together in an effort to help the “Noble Union Girls.”
The decision to hire women at arsenals had been based on a matter-of-fact assessment of labor needs. In Indianapolis, for example, an observer visiting a factory noted with approval the arrival of women at that facility in June 1861:
“[N]inety blushing young virgins and elderly matrons are constantly employed, making Colt’s revolver cartridges, common musket, rifled musket, Mini, Enfield, ball and buckshot cartridges. It is a beautiful and patriotic sight to see the young and tender happy in the bloody work. They laugh and chat gaily…as they roll up the balls and fix the fatal charge intended to let daylight through some man’s heart.”
The Army’s decision to open munitions work to women was based on commonly held assumptions that girls and women were more obedient than men. The workers who did this kind of labor were often young, and, unlike the women who sought nursing appointments, armory workers were more motivated by wage earning than idealism. The work was simple and repetitive, but it required extreme care. Cartridge-formers placed lead balls in paper tubes, filled the tubes with gunpowder, then tied up the loose ends. Colonel Thomas B. Brown of the arsenal in Washington, D.C., where 20 women would die in a July 1864 fire, referred to the process as “choking cartridges.” Spilled gunpowder was carefully swept from workbenches and floors several times a day. Workers wore special slippers or moccasins, and movement in and out of the rooms containing gunpowder was severely restricted.
Although the U.S. Army Ordnance Department issued strict rules regarding the safe handling of gunpowder and other explosive materials, unofficial experimentation was common on arsenal grounds. Investigations at both the Allegheny and Watertown arsenals revealed that some of the men had been conducting unauthorized experiments with gunpowder. And at Watertown those experiments were conducted in close proximity to the cylinder room.
Three men were charged with being grossly negligent in the explosion, including Arsenal Commander John Symington, who went on sick leave and retired the following summer. He died before the war’s end, his sterling 45-year military career, like the Arsenal, blown to pieces.
Symington’s subordinate, Lt. John Edie, would die a decade later, in a government-run insane asylum.
Also charged was the Arsenal’s laboratory superintendent, Alexander McBride. McBride’s own daughter, 15-year-old Kate, was among those killed. McBride’s sworn testimony was heartbreaking. He had to try to take control of the mayhem. All that hadn’t blown up or burned needed to be guarded. He ran around throwing buckets of water on burning screaming people. All the while, he was a father desperately concerned for his daughter.
Alexander McBride lived a life of seclusion after the explosion.
But, in the late 1890s he met with 300 former employees to sign a petition demanding that Congress award $30,000 to be split among victims and families. Nearly 40 years had passed without compensation.
Regardless, Congress did not oblige. By that time money was needed to finance the Spanish-American War.
Attribution: Post Gazette, History.net