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.