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).

No comments:

Post a Comment