Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Article by Judith Giesberg: Explosion at the Allegheny Arsenal » HistoryNet

This is a great article about women in Civil War arsenals by Judith Giesberg, from Civil War Times last April. I need to get hold of her and start digging for info about the Watertown Arsenal in Massachussetts. I definitely plan to use it in my book.

Explosion at the Allegheny Arsenal » HistoryNet
Published with Blogger-droid v1.6.7

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Allegheny Arsenal today

Today, I took a trip into the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh to see the former Allegheny Arsenal grounds. Allan Becer of CMU graciously led me around, giving me some more information. We also took a trip to nearby Allegheny Cemetery, where the 78 victims of the explosion are buried, 54 of them unidentified and under their monument. There is little that remains of the wartime structures today. The US Ordnance Department abandoned the arsenal after the war and in 1900, began selling off portions of its land to the City of Pittsburgh. It served as a Quartermaster storage area during World War I.

This is part of what were the lower arsenal grounds. The land is divided by Butler Street. The lower grounds were where the barracks and quartermaster were, keeping them away from the main laboratory in the event of an explosion. To the right is a bridge over the Allegheny River.

Arsenal Middle School now stands on much of the original arsenal grounds. There is a Civil War naval cannon outfront that has nothing to do with the arsenal; it's pretty much for decoration. There were once warehouses on this spot.

More of the lower arsenal grounds across Butler Street. The brick warehouse in the background is a postwar structure. Near the front is where the great castlelike gatehouse once stood (see previous post with photo of it).

This is the powder magazine, the only building from the arsenal present during the war that still stands. Barrels of powder would be transfered from there to the labs for the day's use. It housed from 800 to 1,000 barrels of black powder. Now it houses restrooms and a maintenance shed for the nearby ballfield and playground. In front was once a pond, now filled with cement. During the explosion, before fire fighters got there, workers formed a sort of bucket brigade, dumping buckets of water from the pond onto the flames.

This big plaque is not original to the was on the gatehouse, if I remember correctly. Somehow, some guy found it, kept it for years, and then donated it. The crossed cannons is the symbol of the US Ordnance Department, and April 1814 was when building of the arsenal began. At the bottom of the guns is A.R.W., the initials of Abram R. Wooley, the first commandant of the arsenal. And I believe the number of stars around it was the number of states in the union at the time.
Plaque on the magazine memorializing the arsenal and its explosion.

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission plaque to the Allegheny Arsenal.

The corner of this ballfield is most likely where the main laboratory where the explosion occured was. The lab was rebuilt after the incident, but not in the exact location as the original one. The walkways in the park seem to have been paved over the original walkways in the arsenal. Bodies of the victims were laid out on boards on the walkway beside the ballfield after the explosion so they might be identified. Apparently, body parts were being found a block or two away.

This monument is at Allegheny Cemetery, about a half mile or so from the explosion. It lists the names of all 78 victims of the explosion, the overwhelming majority being female. 54 of the bodies could not be positively indentified, so they are buried in a mass grave under here. Others are buried individually, while a good number of Irish Catholic victims are buried separately in the St. Mary's portion of the cemetery, just past the fence behind the monument. Songwriter Stephen Foster - who was well-known during the Civil War era - is also buried in the cemetery. His father was one of the founders of Lawrenceville.
Published with Blogger-droid v1.6.7

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A bit about Civil War weapons, part 3: Small arms

"Small arms" generally refers to any gun that is not an artillery piece, which includes pistols, revolvers, rifles, muskets, carbines, et cetera. Many of these weapons were invented or improved over the course of the war, making them more accurate and deadly, thus necessitating a change in military tactics. Prior to the war, and even throughout much of it, officers generally used Napoleonic tactics, where large masses of men shot at each other over a distance. With these improvements in weapons, the casualties were devastating as men were mowed down by the thousands. Also, hand-to-hand combat fell out of favor as the range of weapons increased, and wounds by bayonets and other edged weapons were very rare. The list of makes and models of small arms is nearly endless, especially on the Confederate side, so I will only focus on the most popular ones.

At the beginning of the war, there were over 525,000 outdated Model 1816 and 1840 muskets left over from previous conflicts in United States armories. Most of these had been converted from the old flintlock to the newer percussion firing mechanism, and some were even rifled; smoothbore weapons were becoming obsolete. Southerners quickly seized whatever weapons they could from those arsenals within their states.

The small arm that the Union armies most used is the Model 1861 Springfield Rifled Musket, usually .58. Over 1 million Springfields were made during the war. This featured a rifled barrel that allowed a projectile to spin as it left the muzzle, thus making it more accurate at many more yards. The projectile most used with these was the Minie ball, which despite its name is shaped more like a modern bullet. It was invented in 1848 by a French officer, Claude Minie. What made the Minie ball significant was that its base would expand as it left the muzzle, which caused its spin, and made it able to kill at up to half a mile.

Another popular weapon among the Union armies was the Sharps Models 1859 and 1863 rifle, forerunners of the modern sniper rifle. The Army bought 12,000 of these for the 1st and 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters, who became some of the most renowned units of the war.

The Union cavalry favored breechloading carbines during the war, which look sort of like shorter versions of rifles. The most popular of these was the breechloading Spencer carbine, which was lever-activated and magazine-fed. The Cavalry first received these in October 1863, and by war's end, over 95,000 had been made. The Sharps carbine was the most popular single-shot carbine, which used .52 cartridges and were very reliable. There were many other models of carbines, and unfortunately, the ammunition size for them was never standardized during the war.

As to handguns - which were generally used by infantry and artillery officers and cavalrymen as well as some privately purchased by enlisted men - the most popular calibers and models was the .36 Colt Navy and .44 Colt Army revolvers (1860). Up to 80% of the Union cavalry is thought to have used the Colt Army revolver at some point during the war. Second to the popularity of the Colt was the Remington, which furnished Old and New Model .36 and .44 revolvers. The Remington was similar to the Colt, only less expensive and easier to change cylinders.

The Confederacy started the war with no ordnance department of its own. So it had to start from scratch. There were plenty of manufacturers willing to make a buck making equipment and weapons for the Confederacy, but many of them were woefully inexperienced and there was a lack of standardization among weapons and types of ammunition used. As mentioned, it procured whatever weapons it could from Union arsenals; 296,000 firearms were captured, many of which had to be converted to the newer percussion system. Also, right before the war, Southern states were buying whatever weapons they could from Northern and European manufacturers for their state militias. Often, Confederate soldiers used whatever guns they captured from the Union on the battlefield.

In 1861, the Confederate Chief of Ordnance Josiah Gorgas sent agents to Europe to buy more modern firearms for their army. Many of the European imports were leftovers from the Crimean War of the 1850's. The most popularly used small arm among the Confederate troops was the Enfield, imported from England (and was also popular with Union troops). Over 400,000 Model 1853 Enfields were used during the course of the war. It was a .57 caliber, which meant it could also use the .58 Minie ball. Over 100,000 Lorenz rifles were also imported from Austria. As the blockade slowly choked off Southern ports, it became more difficult to import weapons - and eventually, much of anything else Southern soldiers and civilians used.

All told, only 15% of Southern weapons used in the field were Confederate-made. The two most productive armories were those in Richmond and Fayetteville (NC). In addition to these, were was an almost infinite number of private and state manufacturers. Still, European imports and Union captures did the most to arm the Confederacy.

Most carbines used the by Confederate cavalry were captured from the Union armies. Many pistols and revolvers had also been holdovers from state militias and from Union arsenals, many of which needed to be converted from flintlocks. Still more had been purchased in the north just prior to the war's beginning. Colt and Remington revolvers were popular among Confederate officers, too. They also relied on European imports, particularly the Le Mat from Belgium, England, and France. A much smaller number were made by the local ordnance industry, but those working within it were mostly unskilled.

So where do women tie into this? They were most of the ones rolling and filling the cartridges as well as making other accoutrements in arsenals. Women and girls were favored for this kind of work because their smaller hands made them more dexterous and efficient at rolling cartridges. They also took up less space and could be paid less than men. Most cartridges used during this time were paper, and when they and the powder inside got wet in the field, they were rendered useless.

Loading and firing a musket or rifle during this time period was a time-consuming process; an experienced soldier could get off about 3 shots per minute. A soldier had to tear the cartridge with their teeth (indeed, having one's two front teeth was a requirement for service), pour the powder down the muzzle, drop the bullet down inside, drop the cartridge paper in after it, ram it all down, then prime the gun and put a percussion cap over the nipple (which would ignite the powder when the hammer struck it), and *then* ready, aim, and fire. Lather, rinse, repeat. The newer breechloading repeating rifles and carbines were therefore a godsend to those soldiers that received them.

Images from:

Information from William C. Davis, The Civil War Reenactors' Encyclopedia. Guildford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2002.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Fun with Artillery

Just for fun, while we're on the subject, I thought I would post a video of our group from last summer doing an artillery demonstration. If you look at my YouTube channel, you'll find a few more videos of us doing some night firing, usually with supercharged loads. This video has me as gunnery sergeant, who would yell the commands for firing it (not bad for having asthma!). It was a multi-step process. During battle, a crew could get off three shots per minute, but for safety reasons, we take our time and do some extra sponging of the barrel. I am in the pinkish dress (those of you who know me know that's an unusual color choice for me, but hey, it was pretty), and my older niece (green dress) is serving as powder monkey, who would run rounds from the rear to the crew. Some of our infantry is firing at some Confederates across the lake. At the end, our corporal is playing "Taps" on his cornet. And for those who may be wondering, while there are at least 400 known women who disguised themselves as men and fought in the war, to my knowledge, there are no reports of women in dresses helping to fire a cannon. But there are instances of that during the American Revolution, so it is plausible.

The cannon we use is a 12-pound mountain howitzer. It was used in Americans in battle from the Seminole Wars in the 1830's through the Civil War, even during World War II in the Philippines. It was especially popular earlier during the Civil War during the Western Virginia campaign because it could be disassembled easily and hauled by three pack mules, which made it easy to carry through the mountains there where a bigger field piece could not go. It could fire solid shot, case shot, and canister, using about a pound of black powder to fire.

A bit about Civil War weaponry and ammunition, part 2: Artillery

I admit that I am partial to artillery, because two of my living history groups - The 11th Pennsylvania Infantry, Company I and 1st West Virginia Light Artillery, Jacob's Meadow Battery (we're sort of a hybrid group at this point) - demonstrate the firing of a mountain howitzer on a semi-regular basis. I have also fallen in with other groups over the years, sometimes being part of their cannon crew as well. Any artillery reenactor will tell you that they have a blast (haha) at their impression.

Anyway...Civil War artillery.

Before the war began in 1861, the U.S. Ordnance Department showed little interest in improving the artillery its arsenals produced. To them, smoothbore cannons had been used heretofore with success, so why mess with a good thing? However, in Great Britain, inventors were encouraged to make improvements on their guns, most notably implementing the rifling system in artillery pieces. "Rifling" refers to grooves inside the barrel of a gun in order to make a projectile spin as it leaves the muzzle, thus improving the weapon's range and accuracy, therefore making it more deadly. The United States was beginning to use rifled muskets in their respective infantries in great numbers during the war (more on infantry weapons another day!).
When hostilities began, and without an arsenal of their own as yet (and only one working cannon foundry, Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond), the fledgling Confederacy seized any stashes of weapons they could find within their borders, especially United States Arsenals, where many women would work. Among these weapons were many outdated smoothbore artillery pieces as well as heavy siege and seacoast guns. The Confederacy would come to rely heavily on imports from Great Britain to supplement their artillery, which became increasingly difficult with the blockade of their ports, and also captured Union pieces.

The North had a great advantage in having not only more foundries with which to make new artillery pieces but also their own arsenals to make ammunition for them. At the beginning of the war, they accounted for 4,000 artillery pieces, with only 165 being field artillery.

Artillery can be classified in many ways: field (easily movable overland in battle), mountain (easily disassembled for use in rugged terrain), siege and garrison (most often used in defense of fortifications), and seacoast (difficult to move and usually used in forts or along coastal defenses). It can also be classified by barrel length, elevation, range, weight (light or heavy artillery), and types and weight of projectiles used (i.e., 10-pounder). Here, I will outline a few of the most popular types.

Artillery pieces fired several basic types of ammunition: solid shot (solid iron balls with no explosive charge; think a small bowling ball coming at you a thousand yards downrange), canister (the most deadly; picture a coffee can full of marbles being fired in your direction), shell (a hollow shell with black powder and a timed fuse), and spherical case, which fired shrapnel - often bits of any kind of metal that the men could find to fire.

Artillery groups were formed into batteries, which typically had six guns to it: 4 guns and 2 howitzers (shorter barreled cannons that were more portable and could fire at a higher elevation). Batteries were made up of about 100-125 men to man the guns. In battle, several batteries would be put in line together in order to fire in a row upon the enemy. A battery could fire off 2 or 3 shots per minute.

The most popular types of cannon used on both sides included:

*24, 12, and 6 pound howitzers - typically used in the field, designed to lob shells at higher angles rather than straight-on. Often discarded by Union artillery early on in favor of the Napoleon. Bronze. Smoothbore.
12-pound howitzer

* Napoleon, Model 1857 12 pounder - modeled after a gun commissioned by France's Napoleon III in the 1850s. Easily movable gun, often in the front lines, and a favorite of both sides. Bronze. Smoothbore.
*Parrott Rifle - An example of the newer rifled artillery very popular on both sides. Made of iron instead of the traditional bronze. Had band in rear for reinforcement. Weighed less than the Napoleon but twice as accurate. * 3inch Ordnance Rifle Model 1861 - Probably most popular piece of the war. Also known as Rodman rifles. Could use same ammo as the Parrott due to them both having the same sized larger bores. *Whitworth - a 12-pounder breechloading gun developed in England, which saw some use especially in the Confederate armies, including at Gettysburg. It had a hexagonal barrel and could only fire its own oddly-shaped projectiles, but up to 5 miles.

Pictures and information from

Other information from Lawrence T. Russell's Civil War Arms and Firepower.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A bit about Civil War weaponry and ammunition, part 1

I thought it would be worthwhile to write something about the kinds of weapons and ammunition made and used during the Civil War because without women in arsenals there to fill cartridges and such to be used against the enemy, the war effort on both sides would likely have ground to a halt. Entire books can be - and have - been written about the subject, so I am writing the Spark Notes version here of some of the more commonly used weapons and ammo.

At arsenals, many implements and supplies were made for the armed forces, including cartridges for small arms, artillery ammunition, percussion caps, artillery fuzes, primers, gun carriages, signal rockets, cap and cartridge boxes, and more. In his report made in the aftermath of the Allegheny Arsenal explosion, Colonel John Symington wrote that about 125,000 rounds of .71 and .54 small arm cartridges, and 175 rounds of artillery ammuition for 12 and 10 pounder Parrott rifles had blown up September 17, 1862. The women working there would have rolled most of the cartridges, and many died that day doing so.

The Confederate Laboratory on Brown's Island made not only cartridges for small arms, breech-loading guns, and pistols, but also fuzes, primers, chemicals, percussion caps, signal lights, ammunition for seacoast defenses, and early versions of grenades - just about every kind of implements that the Confederate army and navy would need. Defective artillery ammunition was repacked there for use into colored boxes with red ones for case shot, black for shell, and olive for shot and canister (more on that later). There, the women did much of the manufacturing work; only men were employed in the heavy ammunition department. It is thought that girls ages 9 to 12 would have made up to 1,200 cartridges per day there.

After looking through what I have on the subject, I think I will do this subject in several parts, by side and possibly by branch. But here, I have put it into context of my project. Stay tuned.

Becer, Alan. “An Appalling Disaster: The Allegheny Arsenal and the Explosion of
1862.” Westmoreland History. Fall 1999, 41-59.

"The Confederate States Laboratory Department." Richmond Dispatch, January 5, 1863.

"The Confederate States Laboratory." Richmond Enquirer, January 6, 1863.

Monday, February 7, 2011

An excellent newspaper article about the Allegheny Arsenal explosion

Here is a pretty recent and very detailed article about the Allegheny Arsenal explosion from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Michael Connors, vice president of the Lawrenceville Historical Society (their website is on September 12, 2010. So these are people that I definitely need to get in touch with...


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Explosion at Brown's Island Confederate Laboratory, Richmond VA 1863

The explosion at the Confederate Laboratory on Brown's Island in Richmond, VA (the Confederate capitol) is a nearly forgotten incident effecting Civil War civilians. Like the Allegheny Arsenal explosion the previous fall, it caused great loss of life, mostly young women and girls. Again, much of this is from my original paper. However, I recently stumbled upon a goldmine of primary sources regarding this incident. Mike Gorman has a wonderful website full of photographs, newspaper articles, and the like related to wartime Richmond at Much of my primary sources on this will come from here, especially newspaper accounts.

This explosion took place on March 13, 1863. Like most other ordnance factories and arsenals, the Laboratory employed many poor white young women and girls for much the same reasons during the war. Their contributions helped keep the Confederate army in the field. Here, they manufactured cartridges, fuses, caps, fixed ammunition, signal rockets, grenades, and primers.
The Laboratory had been established by Captain Wesley Smith in early 1861 on Brown’s Island, which was a mound of dirt in the James River at the base of Seventh Street. Initially, the laboratory operated in nearby tobacco factory buildings until Brown’s Island was cleared of brush and the necessary buildings were erected. Smith hired a small number of workers, trained them, and hired more as necessary. It is thought that the mostly-female workers, ages nine to twenty, turned out an average of 1,200 cartridges a day.
The explosion took place between 11 A.M. and noon on March 13, 1863. It was characterized by a dull roar coming from the direction of Brown’s Island. Many Richmonders, who were used to test explosions from the nearby Tredegar Iron Works, thought little of it until dense smoke appeared. This sent people running toward the bridge to Brown’s Island.
The Richmond Examiner reported the next day:
“A tide of human beings, among them the frantic mothers and kindred of the employees in the laboratory, immediately set towards the bridge leading to the island, but the Government authorities, soonest apprised of the disaster, had already taken possession of the bridge, and planting a guard of soldiers, allowed passage to none except the workmen summoned to rescue the dead and wounded from the ruins.”
According to the Examiner, the apartment in which the explosion had occurred was in ruins, with the roof lifted off and the walls blown to bits. The flames were put out, and ten to twelve bodies were taken from the ruins. Another twenty to thirty who would later die suffered in agony, their hair burned away, blinded, and their clothing hanging in burned shreds. In such a state, many of those wounded were hard to recognize. The immediate treatment of those who were burned consisted of removing their clothing, covering the body with a thick layer of flour and cotton, soaked with oil. Chloroform was administered all around. The wounded were either taken home or to General Hospital No. 2.
Several girls whose clothes were on fire had jumped into the river; all came back out save one: Martha Burley, whose body was later found and turned over to friends for burial. Another girl, whose clothes were also on fire, had run toward another laboratory building where a large amount of gunpowder and combustibles were kept. A male employee grabbed her before she reached the door, potentially saving more lives and worse damage.
The explosion was thought to have been caused by Mary Ryan, and 18-year-old native of Ireland. According to witnesses, she was working on a primer when it got stuck to the varnishing board. Ryan had hit the board off of the table three times trying to free the primer, which blew her up to the ceiling, and upon coming down, was blown up again. She later died at her father’s home on Oregon Hill, within a mile of the laboratory.
After the explosion, a three-officer board conducted a probe into the operations of the Laboratory, and produced a report, dated March 25. Captain Smith had been in his office when the explosion occurred, and was on the scene within two minutes. He testified that fifteen to twenty minutes before the explosion, he had cautioned Mary Ryan - who was filling friction primers - about the potentially dangerous work she was doing. Smith insisted that this was not due to any carelessness on Ryan’s part, but in keeping with his habit of enforcing safety upon his employees. Also, a coal-burning stove had been in the room as well as numerous other girls filling cartridges and breaking up condemned ones, which added to the danger. However, other witnesses had said they had seen Ryan striking a board containing primers against the table before, but no one knew why this practice had not been stopped. Nonetheless, the report concluded that many safety precautions had been followed in the Laboratory, which had had heretofore a good reputation for safety. This suggests that, as with the Allegheny Arsenal explosion, tragedy might have been averted had the rules been better enforced.
Richmond residents rallied to help the victims of the explosion. Joseph Mayo, the mayor, asked the Young Men’s Christian Association to assist in raising funds for the relief of victims and their families. A committee was established to solicit donations, and employees of the Richmond Arsenal and Laboratory helped as well. The owners of two local theatres donated the proceeds of a night’s entertainment. Even Confederate soldiers in the field donated what little they could spare to help these young girls. Here, too, there seems to have been no compensation from the government.
Starting on Sunday, the burials of the victims began. So numerous were the funeral corteges that several passed each other on the street on the way to the same cemetery. Many of the girls – including Mary Ryan – were buried in Richmond’s historic Hollywood Cemetery. Others were interred in Shockhoe and Oakwood Cemeteries; Catholic victims were buried in St. Joseph’s Cemetery. As to the Laboratory itself, some of its buildings burned during the evacuation of Richmond on April 2-3, 1865, along with the nearby arsenal, armory, and laboratory at Seventh and Canal Streets.
Soon after the dust settled from the explosion, operations resumed at the Laboratory. In December 1863, women workers struck to raise their wages from $2.40 to $3 per day. Inflation was rampant in Richmond by this time, and the women eventually succeeded. The next year, single women were earning $5 per day, while married women earned $7. All the single women demanded the same wage as those who were married, and threatened to strike. The government fired all of them and replaced them with 300 new workers. At a time when so many Confederate citizens needed money, news of the explosion there does not seem to have been a deterrent.

Works Cited
Primary Sources:

“Terrible Laboratory Explosion on Brown’s Island – Between Forty and Fifty Killed and Wounded - Horrible Scenes.” Richmond Examiner, 14 March 1863.

(More will follow from the aforementioned website).

Secondary Sources:

Burton, David L. “Friday the 13th: Richmond’s Great Homefront Disaster.” Civil War Times
Illustrated, 21, No. 6. October 1982, 36-41.

Harper, Judith E. Women During the Civil War: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Williams, David. A People’s History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom.
New York: The New Press, 2005.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Allegheny Arsenal Explosion: A Brief Overview

Photo: Front gate at Allegheny Arsenal. From The Collections of the Pennsylvania Department, at Carnegie Library, Frank Bingaman Collection. Found at

First, I would like to say many thanks to Allan Becer from Carnegie Mellon University, an authority on the subject and with whom I have been in touch since writing my original paper, from which most of the following is. He has been a great help in sending me information, including his own work.
At present, the Allegheny Arsenal explosion is the one of which I have the most information, perhaps because it is the best known of wartime civilian disasters.

The Allegheny Arsenal, established in 1814, was in Lawrenceville(now part of the City of Pittsburgh) on the east bank of the Allegheny River. A wide variety of military accoutrements and tools were made and stored there, as well as smaller artillery pieces, shells, cartridges, and gun carriages. The Arsenal’s location was significant because it was near the headwaters of the Ohio River, which gave quick access to troops headed to the western frontiers. As of 1858, it was one of 23 arsenals in the country, with less than 50 officers to attend to them.
In charge of the Allegheny Arsenal was Colonel John Symington, who was to be blamed for the disaster that took place in 1862. The fact that one of his sons joined the Confederate army, his daughter displayed Southern sympathies, and the Arsenal obeyed orders to continue shipping its supplies to the South did not help him.
Almost as soon as the first shots at Fort Sumter were fired, the Allegheny Arsenal became a busy place as orders for arms came in, particularly from the Pennsylvania State Militia. As with the other arsenals in the country, manufacturing was increased, and scores of civilians were hired. One of the busiest facilities at the Arsenal was the main laboratory – one of four - which was divided into fourteen rooms with a series of covered porches on one side. The magazines were up the hill from the lab. It was about 60 by 40 feet in size, located near the Greensburg Pike. In eight of the rooms of the lab, 151 girls and 25 boys were employed.
A stone walkway had been built when Symington took command, which connected the main laboratory to other buildings. When it was being constructed, the masons saw that almost every stroke of the hammer drew sparks, due to the flinty nature of the stone being used. This could be dangerous around so much black powder. Symington rejected suggestions to use a softer type of stone because he claimed he was not contracted to do so. He also denied suggestions to cover the walkway with sawdust, sand, or tanbark. When Alexander McBride – Superintendent of the main lab – tried covering it with cinders, Symington reprimanded him for acting without his authority. When asked to give the employees a half-holiday on a Saturday so that the main lab could be scrubbed and flushed in order to get rid of the powder and dust that accumulated in the walls over time, Symington refused.
With so many men and boys away at war, hiring more girls and women at the Arsenal seemed practicable. Also, boys were deemed to spend too much time fondling and admiring implements of war rather than assembling them. Finally, boys were generally more mischievous and careless than girls. Indeed, such work often appealed to women because it was light, patriotic, and an important contribution to the war effort, especially during such a crisis and manpower shortage.
Most of those hired at the Allegheny Arsenal came from Lawrenceville. The number of employees jumped from 308 in April 1861 to 1,189 by January 1862. Young people and women were preferred because they could be paid less, and girls had smaller hands with which to roll cartridges, a lighter touch, and occupied less space due to their smaller frames. Many boys and young men worked in the lab early on, but many of these were dismissed after there were several incidents in which friction matches were found in the cartridge rooms.
In seeking employment at the Arsenal, one had to leave their name, recommendations, and references at the office. Colonel Symington ordered that preference be given to those in most need of work and with good character – particularly widows, “unprotected” girls, and children of widows. Special care was given to the “proper” treatment of women and girls there, and a number of men were dismissed for “improper conduct toward one of the females.” Most young women employed at the lab worked six days a week, twelve hours a day. Most were paid at a piece rate, from fifty cents to $1.10 per day. Each worked was expected to produce a daily minimum, based on one’s individual abilities and past performance. Those unable to meet their quota were subject to dismissal.
Strict safety rules were written out and hung up in each of the labs due to the large amounts of black powder there. For instance, only enough powder was to be delivered to the lab that was necessary for the day’s work. Also, all ammunition made during the day was to be placed in the magazine; nothing was to be left in the lab overnight. Empty boxes were not allowed to accumulate, and those workers who were making cartridges were to be supplied at their tables so that there was minimal need to get up and leave their seats. Also, running and loud conversation were not allowed, and the rooms were to be “properly policed” at least twice a day to make sure these rules were enforced. Loose powder was to be swept out onto the clean piece of ground between the porches and the stone roadway; boys were then to gather up the powder into boxes and dispose of them in the pond.
September 17, 1862 was to be a fateful day for those at the Allegheny Arsenal. It was payday, and workers stood in line in small groups waiting to be paid. There was an urgent need for cartridges because General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had crossed the Potomac into Maryland, and General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson had just captured Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. As it had been for some weeks, the weather had been very warm and heavy. No rain had fallen for more than a month, which made for a very dry atmosphere and contributed to a more volatile work environment.
At around 1 o’clock, J.R. Frick, a wagon driver, had just received an order for ten barrels of powder to be delivered to the main lab. Robert Smith, who assisted Frick, put three of the barrels on Porch #1 outside of the lab. After Frick delivered the rest of the powder to the other porches, Smith had him turn around to pick up some empty boxes at Porch #1. It was then, at about 2 o’clock, that Frick remembered Smith jumping up onto one of the barrels.
At that same moment, John Ryder – who was packing cartridges in a room next to the porch – looked out through the doorway and saw a “flash of powder.” Heading toward the door, Ryder was forced back by the explosion of barrels on the porch. Frick was thrown from his wagon, Smith was blown apart, and the badly burned horses ran away. About 300 girls and boys working in the storehouse below the lab were in a panic, and many tried to rush toward the stairs and out second-story windows in an effort to escape. Lieutenant John Edie, who had been in Colonel Symington’s office, rushed toward the lab, and tried to calm the workers in the storehouse until ladders could be brought; he feared further injury would occur otherwise. Symington and Second Lieutenant Jasper Myers, who was in charge of the lab, soon joined him. Myers inspected the magazine. When he determined that it could be saved, he sent for more men to help with the rescue. Just as the situation in the storehouse was put under control, a second explosion occurred.
This second explosion set the building on fire. Workers had tried to flee at the first sounds of the explosion, but became trapped under flaming walls and roofs which fell upon them. At first, many people at the scene feared that the explosions were an act of sabotage committed by the Confederates as part of a grand scheme to invade the North – especially since they were now in Maryland.
A worker, Mary Jane Black, remembered seeing two girls running from the building:
“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 ran up
and begged me to cover her. I did not succeed in saving either one.”
As he neared the building, Colonel Symington heard a third explosion. The series of explosions could be heard two miles away in Pittsburgh. Symington and Edie had a group of workers who were running down the hill drag the Arsenal’s fire engine up to the pond. Lieutenant Edie organized a line of men to bring buckets of water from the pond to the lab, which had by this time collapsed into burning rubble.
After the fire had been put out, members of the assembled crowd - which included many parents and loved ones of the workers - came forward to remove the bodies and place them on boards for identification. Some families had lost more than one member; several pairs of sisters had died together as well as a father and his daughter. Pieces of limbs were also found; a hand was identified by a ring on one of its fingers, and a leg was identified by its shoe. A piece of a skull was found as well as scattered intestines and flesh hanging from bones. The Pittsburgh Post reported a woman who was thrown up against a wall, with an entire cartridge embedded in her body. Some bodies were found clinging to each other in an effort to save themselves from the flames. The ashes were raked for remains, and then the process of identification began.
Out of the 186 workers in the main lab, 78 were killed according to the final tally – 70 of them were women and girls, the rest being men and boys. Among them was Kate McBride, daughter of lab superintendant Alexander McBride, who tried to douse with water those girls who were still alive. It was later reported that four or five of the victims had been taken to nearby homes, where they soon died.
The news stunned the Pittsburgh area. The local press gave it more coverage than news from the front the next day, September 18. The Post provided a list of the known victims. The explosion had taken place the same day as the battle of Antietam, near Sharpsburg, MD. In the national press, however, news of the battle dwarfed that of the explosion.
That day, Symington reported the incident to the Ordnance Department. He believed that the explosion had been caused by powder that had leaked from one of the barrels that had been placed on the porch:
“The whole proceeds of the day was consequently exploded amounting to
about 125,000 of .71 and .54 in. small arm cartridges, and 175 rounds of field
ammunition assorted for 12 pdr., and 10 pdr. Parrot guns. There were three
explosions: the first as stated of the powder being delivered from the wagon,
when a large number employed in the adjoining rooms escaped – two others
followed in different portions of the building at short intervals, causing the
roof and walls to fall in flames over those who could not escape.”
That day, a committee in Lawrenceville was to act in concert with one in Pittsburgh to bury the dead. The United States Government issued plain black coffins for the interment of those remains which were unidentified – the only sort of government compensation they or their families would receive. They were to be placed in a single grave donated by the nearby Allegheny Cemetery. This was to be the only sort of compensation from the Government. Production was suspended that day at the Arsenal, and stores within the City closed at noon in honor of the dead. At 3 P.M., a solemn procession bearing the 39 unidentified bodies was led from the Arsenal to the Cemetery. In attendance were officials from Lawrenceville and Pittsburgh as well as clergymen from various denominations. At the Cemetery, the 39 bodies were placed in a large pit. At the same time, the Catholic victims of the explosion were buried at the adjoining St. Mary’s Cemetery.
Reverend Richard Lea, whose Presbyterian Church was near the Arsenal and who had given the sermon at the funeral, gave another sermon to his congregation on September 28. He reiterated that the explosion had been caused by a either a wagon’s horse’s shoe or the iron of the wheel of the wagon. He extolled some of the positive things that had come from the tragedy, such as the heroic courage that had been displayed by the men who tried to rescue workers; the firemen who had quickly arrived on the scene; physicians were present, despite being tired and hungry; women were also there, ready to nurse; and finally, people from all classes and walks of life were there.
While the funeral was taking place, Symington had issued Post Orders for the clearing away of debris. The hired workers were to haul away the burned wood and ashes and toss them into the river. The workers had to be mindful to salvage any cartridge boxes that could still be used so that work at the Arsenal could be quickly resumed. Useable parts of the lab were to be set aside and accounted for, and destroyed portions rebuilt. Also found among the charred wood were torn clothing, pieces of dinner baskets, exploded shells, melted lead, and steel springs from girls’ hoop skirts.
The next day, Friday September 19, work resumed at the Arsenal while a detail of enlisted men and laborers began clearing away what was left of the laboratory. At the same time, a Coroner’s inquest was held in Lawrenceville in order to determine the cause of death for the victims of the explosions. The hearings began at 10 A.M., with a jury of seven local residents. Colonel Symington was the last witness of the day. He outlined his policies at the Arsenal, adding that “it was contrary to orders to sweep out powder onto the roadway,” and if it had been, it had been done by careless individuals.
While the hearings recessed for the weekend, residents of Lawrenceville gathered to voice their disapproval of Lieutenant Edie and his conduct on the day of the funeral. They accused him of driving people away from the Arsenal as well as using “grossly obscene language” to describe the girls. The citizens passed a resolution calling for his expulsion from both the Arsenal and the community of Lawrenceville. When the hearings resumed the next Monday, Lieutenant Myers defended his fellow officer. When he told the jurors that Edie wished to make a statement on his own behalf, the jury denied him this, believing that such a statement was “altogether out of their province.” The other witnesses consisted mainly of Arsenal officials who contended that the rules in the lab had been strictly followed, and that the day of the explosion, there had been no loose powder on the roadway.
On Saturday September 27, the Coroner’s jury met to begin their deliberations. After two hours, they delivered their verdict: that the explosion had been caused by the neglect of Colonel Symington, Lieutenants Edie and Myers, and Superintendant McBride and his assistant James Thorpe. Symington was furious, blaming the verdict on “notorious outside pressure.”
On October 15, the Court of Inquiry convened at the Arsenal to investigate the circumstances of the explosions as well as the conduct of Colonel Symington. However, proceedings were delayed until the 20th. The Court heard many of the same witnesses who had testified at the Coroner’s Inquest, and many members of the victims’ families were also in attendance. J.R. Frick, the wagon driver, was even more adamant that the first flash of powder came from under his wagon wheel, which had struck powder that had been carelessly swept out onto the roadway. He also testified that he had reported leaky barrels to one of the superintendants several days prior to the explosion, but nothing was done. However, Frick could not remember what he told Superintendant McBride when approached by him the day after the explosion. Ellis McClure, an 18-year-old worker, had testified that the ground under the stones in the roadway had at least six inches thick with powder. Prior to the explosions, however, McBride – whose job it was to inspect each of the rooms of the main lab – had filed a complaint with Messrs. DuPont and Company for faulty barrels.
Other witnesses testified to seeing powder being swept into the roadway. Rachel Dunlap said that “she saw grains of powder swept out of the room at various times.” John Ryan, who had been foreman of Room J and employed in the upper magazine, claimed that sometimes up to a half-pound of powder was swept out onto the roadway, which was always doused with water when discovered. He went on to say that boys from ages 12 to 18 were employed in filling cartridge bags for siege guns in the magazine; they were to wear moccasins in order to prevent sparks. Symington had ordered that men, not boys, were to do this.
After seven days of testimony, the Court reached its verdict. They ruled that the cause of the explosion could not be ascertained, but it possibly may have been caused when Smith jumped up on one of the barrels, which likely had powder on the head. Another possibility is that a spark from one of the horses’ shoes caused it. The exact cause may never be known with certainty, but overall negligence and inexperience clearly contributed to it.
The Court also ruled that Symington had taken every precaution and care in running the Arsenal as safely as possible. Symington was relieved of his command on November 1 by the Chief of Ordnance, Major James W. Ripley, and replaced by Major Robert Henry Kirkwood Whitely. Symington took sick leave and retired the next year. He died in Hartford County, Maryland on April 4, 1864, a broken man.
The Arsenal continued to make news during the war. The Pittsburgh Post reported in December 1864 that “A wholesale larceny of bullets . . . and a large quantity of ammunition [had been] sold” by boys who were employed at the Arsenal. The Post reported that Lawrenceville widow Margaret O’Connor had received the stolen ammunition and melted it down. She, with eight boys, was subsequently arrested.
In 1928, members of the Sons of Union Veterans and its Ladies’ Auxiliary dedicated a new monument in Allegheny Cemetery. The new monument had 78 names, which was 41 more than the original obelisk erected in 1863; the latter of which was funded by local donations. At the height of its operation, the Arsenal had included about twenty buildings, but little of it remains today. Two warehouses are used by the Allegheny Health Department as garages. Another building is an office for a trucking company. The site of the explosions is now a ball field at Arsenal Park behind Arsenal Middle School. The magazine, which has a plaque commemorating those lost in the explosion, is now a park restroom.

Works Cited:
Primary Sources:
“A Direful Calamity,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, 18 September 1862.

“The Arsenal Catastrophe.” Pittsburgh Daily Post, 20 September 1862.

“The Catastrophe at the Arsenal.” Pittsburgh Daily Post, 19 September 1862.

Secondary Sources:
Becer, Alan. “An Appalling Disaster: The Allegheny Arsenal and the Explosion of
1862.” Westmoreland History. Fall 1999, 41-59.

Carnprobst, John, ed. “’Ye Know Not What Hour Your Lord Doth Come:’ Tragedy at the U.S. Allegheny Arsenal.” Blue and Gray Magazine. August-September 1985, 28-43.

Fox, Arthur B. Pittsburgh During the American Civil War, 1860-1865. Chicora, PA: Mechling Bookbinding, 2002.

Harper, Frank C. Pittsburgh of Today, It’s Resources and People, Volume 1. New York: The American Historical Society Incorporated, 1931.

Wudarczyk, James. “Men and Material.” America’s Civil War 20, no. 2 (May 2007): 23-25. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed 2 October 2008).

---. Pittsburgh’s Forgotten Allegheny Arsenal. Apollo, PA: Closson Press, 1999.

About me/what this is all about

I have been studying the Civil War since the age of 8, after a family vacation that stopped in Gettysburg and watching the Ken Burns series on the subject alongside my older sister, herself a longtime researcher of it. The next year, at the age of 9, I wrote a story in the style of a girl keeping a diary during the war and living near Manassas, Va. My English teacher saw it and liked it, and wanted to publish it. So after many recesses spent editing and illustrating, it was published as "Harriet's Diary," with enough copies for family members.
At age 10, I joined a local Civil War living history group along with my sister and brother-in-law based upon the original 11th Pennsylvania Infantry, Company I. What many people do not realize is that living history takes a lot of research into all aspects of life during that time period.
In 2007, I graduated magna cum laude from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor's in history. While there, I was secretary of the History Club and a member of two honor societies: Phi Alpha Theta (history) and Iota Iota Iota (women's studies).
That fall, I entered graduate school at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in the public history program. I did an internship at the Senator John Heinz Regional History Center in Pittsburgh in the community programs department. Part of my work was to research statewide Civil War living history groups and put them together in a volume. I also served as a graduate assistant to Dr. Joseph Mannard. My project was to edit and transcribe correspondence from the sisters at the Convent of the Visitation of Wheeling from 1846-64. I also interned at the school's Special Collections and Archives. I graduated in 2009.
Now? I am always looking for a new job in my field. I volunteer often at West Overton Museums in Scottdale, where my sister is the archivist.
The people who inspire me most are my sister, who got me into all this in the first place; my parents (including my late father who had a love of history) who have both been supportive and instilled in me a love of reading, and my boyfriend who co-owns a publishing company in Gettysburg and has thus inspired me to get moving on getting this all published.

So what's this all about?
It all started with a paper I wrote in fall 2008 for my Civil War and Reconstruction class at IUP under Dr. Wang Xi. Us grad students were to write a paper on a topic of our choice. The Allegheny Arsenal explosion had long fascinated me since it happened close to me, about 35 miles from my hometown. The great loss of life, especially of young ladies, was shocking. In my research, I found that this was no isolated incident. Other explosions took place during the war in Richmond and Washington, each killing many young women. So I wrote a comparative study of such incidents, seeking to answer why so many women knowingly risked their lives for the war effort. And why they are seemingly forgotten today. Those are the objectives I will answer in my eventual book.