I’m sure Harriet Beecher Stowe meant well when, in 1861, she rallied American women to patriotism, writing, “We thank God for mothers that cheer on their sons, for young wives that have said ‘go’ to their husbands, for widows who have given their only sons.” But as the bloody Civil War dragged on, some women chose a more hands-on approach to support the war — they went to dangerous work in arsenals, helping build and fuel the machinery of war at places like the Allegheny Arsenal in Lawrenceville, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
On September 17, 1862, a massive explosion and fire tore through the arsenal, claiming the lives of 71 women and girls, 54 of whom could not be identified, in the worst civilian disaster of the Civil War. Their deaths were given little press coverage because the bloody Battle of Antietam was fought the same day.
Many of the arsenal workers were young girls; others were mothers, wives and widows struggling to support households while husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons were off at war; more than a few came from impoverished Irish-Catholic immigrant families. Because strait-laced Victorian society looked askance at women working outside the home, arsenal work was often a family affair, with sisters, cousins and close friends working together. And while all that togetherness may have lent a sheen of respectability for society’s sake, it proved deadly when accidents occurred.
From April 1861 to January 1862, Allegheny Arsenal increased its workforce from 308 to 1,189. One of the busiest places at the arsenal was the main laboratory. Divided into 14 rooms with a series of covered porches on one side, it employed 158 workers — mainly young women and girls, some as young as 14, who worked six days a week, 12 hours a day, earning from 50¢ to $1.10 a day. Reporting to work in their respectable dresses with high collars, long sleeves, and hoopskirts, they were seen as conscientious workers with a natural fastidiousness that lent itself to working with untidy gunpowder. Not to mention, they could be paid less.
Their job was to assemble paper cartridges for the Union Army, carefully filling each thin paper tube with gunpowder, adding another slender paper tube containing the lead bullet, then “choking” them off with a series of tiny, complex folds in the end of each cartridge — a job perfectly suited to women’s slender fingers and small hands. Subject to daily quotas, those unable to meet their quotas for whatever reason were dismissed. In a deadly irony, women and girls had only recently replaced boys for munitions work — some boys smoked tobacco and were dismissed over concerns they could be careless with matches, given that even the slightest spark could ignite the loose gunpowder.
While exactly what happened at Alleghney Arsenal — and why — on September 17, 1862, remains unclear, many witnesses reported seeing wooden barrels leaking gunpowder as they were moved around the complex.
Colonel John Symington, Commander of the arsenal, had recently had a macadamized road built between the lab and other buildings. Noting its pieces of hard, flinty stone, experienced workers warned management about the very real potential for explosion if any of the powder came into contact with the new road.
Alexander McBride, a civilian who supervised the lab, had sawdust and wood chips spread over the road to prevent sparks until Symington insisted it be swept away. And when asked to give his employees a half-day on Saturday so they could get rid of any powder that had accumulated over time, Symington refused. McBride also worried about E.I. DuPont’s insistence on recycling its wooden powder barrels which, over time, resulted in loose lids and trails of spilled powder.
It was almost 2 PM when Joseph Frick was delivering barrels of DuPont black powder in a horse-drawn wagon up the new road. Rachel Dunlap, working in the lab, was watching him maneuver the wagon to offload the barrels when she saw a spark near the horse’s iron-shod hooves and the wagon’s iron-rimmed wheels. Then she saw a sheet of flame. All it took was that one tiny spark.
At the sound of the first explosion, Colonel Symington rushed to the lab to find about 300 women, girls, and boys in the storehouse on the floor below creating a bottleneck in their rush to the stairs.
Then, just as the situation in the storehouse seemed to be under control, a second explosion set the laboratory building on fire. Panic-stricken women ran from buildings as the air filled with clouds of smoke and the smell of sulfur and burning flesh. Others tried to flee, becoming trapped when flaming walls and roofs collapsed on top of them.
Firefighting equipment was brought to the scene while a bucket brigade tried to douse the flames with water. The volunteer fire company from Pittsburgh arrived in horse-drawn wagons and helped bring the fire under control. But by the time it was put out, the lab was nothing more than a pile of smoldering rubble.
Victims died in the most horrific ways. After all, a body can’t survive 125,000 rounds of exploding ammunition, not to mention a couple hundred parrott-gun projectiles. Parrott guns were used in the Civil war during battles and sieges of forts and cities; about one pound of each projectile is an explosive charge, while the rest is a metal casing designed to fragment and send shrapnel flying. In places where the heat was most intense, nothing remained but a pile of white bones.
An arm flew beyond the Arsenal’s massive stone wall; a shoeless foot lay near the main gate; bodies were thrown into the air and torn apart. The ground was littered with body parts and smoldering shards of wood. Surviving arsenal worker Mary Jane Black would recall “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. I did not succeed in saving either one.”
Ministers, neighbors, friends, and relatives of the workers ran toward the disaster, filling the air with the anguished cries and screams of those who recognized their loved ones or sought in vain for those who wouldn’t be coming home that day. Almost three-quarters of the women and girls killed that day were so badly burned or disfigured they could not be identified.
Local newspapers like the Daily Post and The Pittsburgh Evening Chronicle spared no grisly details in describing the horrors awaiting those who rushed to the scene. Describing the charred debris strewn about the grounds, one account noted “steel springs from the girls’ hoopskirts.” One can only imagine what it was like, trying to escape a raging fire in the high-collared, long-sleeved, annkle-length hoopskirts of the day that restricted women’s movement.
Just as Antietam was the costliest day for military dead, the Allegheny Arsenal explosion produced the largest Civil War civilian death tally, its 34-acre complex becoming a grim public morgue as bodies were collected and laid out on wooden planks.
Allegheny Cemetery immediately donated land while the federal government provided 39 black coffins for the unidentified remains. And on September 18, 1862, one day after the explosion, the mayors of Pittsburgh and Lawrenceville, along with local clergy and council members, somberly stood watch as each coffin was lowered into the mass grave. In 1863 an Egyptian obelisk inscribed with names of the victims was raised over the common grave of unidentified arsenal workers. But the next 65 years took their toll on the monument until, in 1928, it was replaced with a newer memorial inscribed with names of the victims.
The cause of the Allegheny Arsenal explosion was never fully determined. A coroner’s inquest eventually found that a spark from the combustion of either an iron horseshoe or iron-rimmed wagon wheel was ignited when the metal contacted black powder on the macadamized road in front of the laboratory building. That one spark then traveled to the open porches and into the building, setting off spilled powder as it went.
A coroner’s jury found the disaster was the result of the negligence of Colonel John Symington and his subordinates in allowing loose powder to accumulate on the roadway and elsewhere. During a subsequent military inquiry into the conduct of Symington, however, many of the same witnesses who appeared before the coroner changed their testimony.
Colonel Symington was eventually found innocent of any wrongdoing by the Union Army, the court finding “the cause of the explosion could not be satisfactorily ascertained…” Others pointed to lax enforcement of safety rules by civilian superintendent Alexander McBride. And many argued that those leaky wooden barrels with loose lids DuPont used to ship gunpowder to the arsenal played a role — but because DuPont was the primary supplier of black powder, their culpability may never have been fully investigated.
In the end, three men were charged with gross negligence: Arsenal Commander John Symington; his subordinate, Lieutenant John Edie; and Alexander McBride, whose 14-year-old daughter was killed when part of the lab’s flaming ceiling fell on her in the room where she worked. McBride remained at the arsenal until the Civil War ended, living in relative seclusion. In the late 1890s he met with 300 former employees to sign a petition demanding Congress award $30,000 in compensation for the victims’ families. By then, nearly 40 years had passed. But Congress denied the petition, saying the money was needed to finance the Spanish-American War.
Officials were quick to put the tragedy behind them. After all, cartridge making operations couldn’t be stopped very long because of the Union Army‘s dire need for ammunition. Temporary buildings were erected to house employees, and a new laboratory was built. The arsenal continued to supply the Federal army with arms and ammunition throughout the war.
After the war, the Allegheny Arsenal became a storage facility for the Ordnance Department and Quartermaster Corps until, in the 1920s, the government turned the arsenal property over to the city and most of the land was sold off. Today the site of the explosion is in a ballfield in the community’s Arsenal Park.
These are the victims of the 1862 Allegheny Arsenal disaster. All but seven are women and girls.
Elizabeth Ager • Mary Algeo • Mary Amarine • Hannah Baxter • Barbara Bishop • Joseph Bollman • Mary Bollman • Roe Brady • Ella Brown • Alice Burke • Sarah Burke • Catherine Burkhart • Bridget Clare • Emma Clowes • Mary Collins • Melinda Colston • Mary Cranan • Agnes Davison • Mary Davison • Ann Dillon • Kate Dillon • Kate Donahue • Sarah Donnell • Mary Donnelly • Magdalene Douglas • Mary Dripps • Catherine Dugan • Nancy Fleming • Catherine Foley • Susan Fritchley • Sarah George • David Gilliland • Virginia Hammill • Sidney Hanlon • Mary Heeny • Hester Heslip • Mary Jeffrey • Mary Johnson • Annie Jones • Catherine Kaler • Margaret Kelley • Uriah Laughlin • Eliza Lindsay • Harriet Lindsay • Adaline Mahrer • Ellen Manchester • Elizabeth Markle • Elizabeth Maxwell • Sarah Maxwell • Ella McAfee • Kate McBride • Marie McCarthy • Susan McCreight • Ellen McKenna • Susan McKenna • Grace McMillan • Andrew McWhirter • Mary Ann McWhirter • Catherine Miller • Phillip Miller • Mary Murphy • Melinda Neckerman • Alice Nugent • Margaret O’Rourke • Mary Riordan • Martha Robinson • Mary Robinson • Mary S. Robinson • Nancy Ross • Ella Rushton • Eleanor Shepard • Sarah Shepard • Elizabeth Shook • Ellen Slattery • Mary Slattery • Robert Smith • Lucinda Truxall and Margaret Turney