On the far eastern flank of Capitol Hill, between D.C. General Hospital and Barney Circle, on a bank of the Anacostia River, lies 30-acre Congressional Cemetery. In the cemetery lie, among others, the only signer of the Declaration of Independence buried in the District, Elbridge Gerry; former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover; Marine bandleader John Philip Sousa; David Herold, a John Wilkes Booth co-conspirator; and Civil War photographer Matthew Brady.
The most moving monument to the dead, however, as well as one of the most statuesque, is a 20-foot obelisk dedicated to 21 women killed on June 17, 1864, in a black-powder explosion at the Washington Arsenal during the Civil War’s fourth summer. The explosion was an accident, but the arsenal’s superintendent, a Mr. Brown, was cited in the inquest for “the most culpable carelessness and negligence.”
More than 100 women most of whom were Irish immigrants still in their 20s worked at the site at the arsenal (the site now known as Buzzard’s Point/Fort Leslie McNair, across from Haines Point), near the Navy Yard. They rolled volatile black powder into the paper cartridges topped by Minie balls that formed the ammunition of Civil War small arms.Preparation of the ammunition was a ceaseless, back-breaking and dangerous task.
The immediate cause of the Washington Arsenal explosion was quickly determined to be the careless preparation of fireworks, perhaps for the upcoming Fourth of July celebrations.
The Washington Evening Star of July 17 and 18, 1864, reported that just before noon on Friday, June 17, “firework stars which had been prepared for fireworks, and were in a pan near the southeastern window of the building … took fire and in burning flew out of the pan, some of them falling in and catching to the loose powder where the girls were making cartridges.”
The heat of the Washington summer day was cited as a proximate cause of initial ignition.
The Star’s accounts conveyed the gruesome and extensive horror of the accident. The human damage was appalling, and it is difficult to read the articles with composure, even after 137 years:
“When our reporter left the scene of the disaster nineteen bodies had been taken from the ruins, but they were so completely burnt to a crisp that recognition was impossible.”
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had been alerted to send medical help, which was done, and area volunteer fire companies responded quickly with their horse-drawn, steam-driven water wagons to douse the blaze. The carnage already lay there, however, to horrify survivors, victims’ relatives and loved ones, who flocked to the smoldering scene.
At first, there was confusion about the final tally. “Quite a number were injured in jumping from the windows, but the majority of those who escaped in this way immediately ran off in all directions, which renders it difficult to tell who perished and who escaped. … One young woman had an arm broken in jumping from the building.”
The newspaper’s accounts worsen as bodies were removed. “The canvas covering the remains was then removed, and a most terrible sight presented itself to the view of those standing around.
“The charred remains of seventeen dead bodies lay scattered about, some in boxes, some on pieces of boards, and some in large tin pans, they having been removed from the ruins in these receptacles.
In nearly every case only the trunk of the body remains, the arms and legs being missing or detached. In one case, however, that of a young girl, every shred of dress had been burned from her but her gaiter shoes, which had singularly escaped a touch of the flames. It is probable that some portion of the rubbish fell over her feet, protecting them from the flames. We believe the body has since been identified by her friends through these shoes.
“A singular feature of the sad spectacle was that presented by a number of the bodies nearly burned to a cinder being caged, as it were, in the wire of their hooped skirts.”
The pathos of young female factory workers dying such awful deaths was not lost on the community. Washington responded to the disaster with a funeral cortege on Sunday, June 19, 1864, which included 150 carriages rolling from the Navy Yard area to Congressional Cemetery. In one rode President Abraham Lincoln and Stanton. (Stanton ordered the War Department to pay for the group funeral.) Father A. Bokel of St. Dominick’s Church officiated at the arsenal end of the ceremony, and as many as 2,000 mourners jammed the grounds at both sites.
On Monday, June 20, the Star reported: “No such concentration of popular sympathy has ever been expressed in Washington before as by this immense out-pouring of people to attend the funeral of the victims of this sad disaster, and the demonstration will long be remembered by those who witnessed it.”
Almost immediately, funds were gathered for a monument that is tall, handsome and intricate.
It bears the names of the young women, is carved with compelling iconography, and its obelisk is surmounted by a grieving female figure with bowed head, clutching her hands, and it retains its poignancy to this day. It was sculpted by Lot Flannery, erected in 1867, and is one of the most affecting funerary structures in Washington.
Cliff Johns is a writer in Alexandria.