Saturday, December 3, 2016

Book review: Gunpowder Girls by Tanya Anderson

Tanya Anderson, Gunpowder Girls: The True Stories of Three Civil War Tragedies (Quindaro Press: Kansas City, MO, 2016), 157 pp.  Available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or

I admit that when I first found out this book existed, I had a little moment of panic, thinking that someone else had written the book that I’m writing.  I needn’t have worried though, because I know mine won’t be the last on the subject – Civil War history is a very well-documented field.  Anderson’s Gunpowder Girls is aimed for a young adult audience, and as someone who has been studying the Civil War since about the age of eight, I would have loved to have had this as a kid.  But it was still highly enjoyable as an adult. 

Gunpowder Girls focuses on the three most well-documented explosions at arsenals during the war: the Allegheny Arsenal near Pittsburgh, the Confederate States Laboratory on Brown’s Island in Richmond, and Washington Arsenal in the District of Columbia.  Anderson has done what I have been seeking to do: getting to know the workers and victims as well as possible so that they aren’t just names on a memorial.  Both she and I have been doing this through 1860 Census records (hooray for Ancestry memberships!) and as much period newspaper articles of the arsenals as can be found.  Anderson’s work has even filled in some small gaps to my own research.

So whether you have a young Civil War enthusiast in your life that still needs a Christmas present or you just enjoy reading about unsung women of history, Gunpowder Girls is a welcome addition to any history library. 
Gunpowder Girls - Quindaro Press

Tuesday, March 8, 2016


This may not be its final form- you know how editing goes.

Before Rosie the Riveter became an icon for working women during World War II, thousands of women and girls worked in ammunition and ordnance factories in the North and South during the Civil War.  However, working in an environment with black powder and other explosive items was not without danger, and as we will see, many workers died in explosions. The most fatal and best-known of these was the explosion that took place at the Allegheny Arsenal in Pittsburgh in September 1862 and killed 78 workers, most of them women and children.   The Allegheny Arsenal explosion was hardly an isolated incident, though, as other explosions occurred in other munitions facilities North and South.
Even in light of these explosions, no laws were made regarding the use of women and children in such dangerous work, and only seldom, changes in policy.  Nor does there seem to have been much change in procedure in working with black powder more safely.  With so many men gone to the front, the armies needed ammunition, and someone had to produce it.  As described in several of these incidents, had there been less negligence and arrogance on the part of the men in charge, and had the safety rules dealing with powder been better enforced, such tragedies might have been averted.
By virtue of working in arsenals, these women and girls raised questions about what the postwar economy would look like, the meaning of the war, and the integrity of male labor.   Despite many being driven to work outside the home, which went against Victorian conventions about how women should behave and focus their energies, these women did the best they could to keep up appearances of respectability at home.  Working-class respectability often did, in fact, rely upon the wages of women.  
Yet these women’s contributions have often gone unnoticed in favor of the exploits by more famous women nurses, soldiers, and spies as well as those women who left behind some sort of remembrances or correspondence.  Women workers were generally not called upon to tell their stories in the postwar era, perhaps because it seemed like a more mundane task than working closer to the front.  Their stories emerged only when explosions occurred.  Nonetheless, by the very nature of their work, women in arsenals risked their lives every day.  Only when Civil War veterans began dying in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries did these women receive much recognition for their efforts.
To date, I have yet to find many contemporary reminisces of these working women, and little from the postwar period.  One exception to this is some witness testimony during the coroner’s inquest following the Allegheny Arsenal explosion. However, I am never finished researching this topic, so I am open to making a second edition of this book as more details come to light.
Herein, I will discuss what sort of tasks women in ammunition factories performed, and why they worked in these facilities, as dangerous as they were.  (An “arsenal” is defined as a place where arms and ammunition are made and stored, but for the purposes of this work, I refer to these as well as ammunition factories and other like facilities as arsenals).  News of such incidents does not seem to have deterred many from working in these places, especially for those who needed extra income the most.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Review: Until the Morning Cometh

I recently bought James Wudarczyk's "Until the Morning Cometh: Civil War Era Pittsburgh."  The city of Pittsburgh had many various contributions to the Union war effort, but most of these stories are still little-known.  Wudarczyk has put together a book outlining these contributions, painting a picture of Pittsburgh's importance during the Civil War.  In the introduction, Wudarczyk relates how even lifelong Pittsburghers are often surprised at how vital a role the city played in the conflict.

The first story outlines Pittsburgh's contributions to the founding of the Republican party in the 1850's, including the ambitions of newspaper editor Horace Greeley, the diverse opinions of those within the party, and the question of nativism (anti-immigrant sentiment) which would be resolved at the 1856 convention in the city.
The second story discusses Secretary of War John Floyd and how he became the most despised man in the city in the winter of 1860, as the country was on the brink of war.  Floyd issued an order for Lawrenceville's Allegheny Arsenal to continue shipping military supplies to the newly forming Confederate States.  The outcry was such that the order was rescinded, but the damage was done.
Next, Wudarczyk outlines President-elect Abraham Lincoln's stop in Pittsburgh en route to the White House, which of course was a huge deal.
After that is an account of Camp Wilkins, housed at a former fairground, where so many of Pittsburgh's troops were trained and drilled for the front.  Then there is a story of the camp's namesake, Judge William Wilkins, who helped supply the vast numbers of Union troops in the area.  Scandal soon erupted because many contractors for the government issued "shoddy" uniforms and supplies while pocketing the profits.

Toward the middle is mostly the reason I purchased this book: an analysis of the cause of the explosion at Allegheny Arsenal in September 1862.  Wudarczyk examines both the coroner's inquest and the military court of inquiry and finds inconsistencies between the two on the part of the witnesses.  One new thing I learned is another theory about the cause of the explosion that has been posited in the last couple of years: that at least one of the three explosions may have been caused by a boiler explosion beneath the laboratory.  The boiler had used steam heat to warm the lab.

In the summer of 1863, Confederate Cavalry General John Hunt Morgan and his raiders succeeded in reaching New Lisbon, Ohio after a campaign in Kentucky.  Morgan and most of his men were captured, and 118 of the raiders were sent to Western Penitentiary before being transferred to Fort Delaware in March 1864.
The following story discusses the fact that there are a number - as many as seventeen - Confederate soldiers buried in Allegheny Cemetery (though none of Morgan's raiders had died in captivity here).  Arthur Fox, author of "Pittsburgh During the American Civil War" was one of the historians who investigated these graves.  In 1962, controversy erupted over whether or not Confederate flags should be placed over their graves by the Grand Army of the Republic.
Another story discusses the contribution of guns, ammunition, and the like from Pittsburgh, most notably from Allegheny Arsenal.  In the wake of the war, Pittsburgh was now truly one of the most industrialized cities in the nation, especially due to its rising number of steel mills.
The next story outlines several prominent Pittsburgh officers and how they have been honored in just the past few years with new headstones.  This chapter includes accounts about the local 9th Reserves/38th Pennsylvania Regiment in battle, possibly the best known regiment from the area.  
Another story talks about the fortifications surrounding Pittsburgh during the conflict.  Pittsburgh was always seen as a potential target for Confederate invasion due to its mighty industrial output.  This was particularly true after the burning of Chambersburg in the summer of 1864.  Indeed, another theory behind the Allegheny Arsenal explosion is Confederate sabotage, though this seems unlikely.
Then there is an account of Thomas Rodman, who made many innovations and experiments with artillery at the Fort Pitt Foundry and Allegheny Arsenal.  Probably his most important contribution was his 15-inch Rodman gun.  Also, his experiments with metallurgy changed how artillery pieces were made.
Finally, Wudarczyk writes about the life of General Alfred Pearson, who organized the "Arsenal Guards" out of Lawrenceville
Then there is an account about several dozen Sisters of Mercy who left Pittsburgh and served as nurses from 1862-65 in Washington.  It is important to note that this was still a time full of anti-Catholic prejudice in the country, but nuns such as these were vital for caring for the sick and wounded.  This story also discusses the 1864 Sanitary Fair held in the city by the U.S. Sanitary Commission to raise money to care for men.
After that, Wudarczyk talks about several Pittsburgh men who were present during the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865.

In closing, Wudarczyk ends with the events that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the explosion of Allegheny Arsenal in September 2012 (I was present for some of them).

So if even one or two of these stories intrigues you, it is well worth ordering this book, which you can do here:

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Indiegogo, or Trying to Fund my Book, Take 2

Hello all,
I realize it has been a while since I have updated this because I do virtually everything on Facebook anymore (going to see if I can't link these two together).  But I am trying again to get funding to finish and publish my book, this time through Indiegogo.  It ain't easy being a broke postgrad.  Every bit helps, and at certain levels, you will receive a copy of my book, either electronic or paper.  We have until March 15, 2014.  Let's do this!

Women in Civil War Arsenals Book

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Have you pledged yet?

Women in Civil War Arsenals Book by Raina Kellerman » Dashboard — Kickstarter

Only 6% funded with 11 days to go. Not looking good. So I'm hoping for a miracle here.

Pretty please pledge and repost this so that others can do the same.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Review: "The Washington Arsenal Explosion"

I had been anticipating Brian Bergin's book for months, and I wasn't disappointed. It's proof that good things come in small packages, in this case 126 pages. It is richly detailed, telling the story of another little-known but tragic incident during the Civil War.
Many girls and women, trying to get by without a male breadwinner at home, signed on to "choke" cartridges at the Washington Arsenal. The wages weren't great and the work was dangerous, but they were one of the few occupations open to women at the time. Most of the women who worked there lived in the vicinity of the Arsenal, in a neighborhood known as the Island, and many were of Irish stock.
On June 18, 1864, as he had done for months, Superintendent Thomas Brown laid out fireworks (or "stars") on dry on pans in the sun just 35 feet away from the laboratory where these women worked. But just before noon, these fireworks exploded and set the lab afire. When the fire was put out, seventeen women - many burned beyond recognition and some literally in pieces - were found dead (four more would die of their injuries).
A coroner's inquest was immediately held, and Brown was found responsible for negligence. Plans for a citywide funeral for the victims were begun.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered that no expense be spared for the funeral. He and President Lincoln were themselves in attendance at the services at the Arsenal grounds. A long procession went to Congressional Cemetery, where most of the victims were buried in a mass grave. The President and Secretary of War did not turn out for other explosion-related rituals during the war, nor did the government give money toward them. This is presumably because the Washington explosion was local (although today, it would be easier for them to travel to such events, as the President often does). Funds were appropriated by Congress for orphans of explosion victims and those who survived their injuries, but not to the deceased's families, probably because the women and girls killed were not usually the family breadwinners. But it is still more than anyone from the Allegheny Arsenal explosion, for one, received from Congress.
One year after the explosion, a monument with a statue of Grief atop it was erected, done by Lot Flannery, where it still stands today.

Brian passed away in 2009, but fortunately his daughter Erin Bergin Voorheis has edited this work and had it published for all to read. I wish I could have met Brian, but Erin has been wonderful and I hope to get together with her in the near future and express my appreciation in person (and to pick her brain about the whole publishing process).

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

My Kickstarter page

Women in Civil War Arsenals Book by Raina Kellerman — Kickstarter

In an effort to try and get my book written and published, I've started a Kickstarter page. Every bit helps! So spread the word. Thank you!