Saturday, May 17, 2008

Summer 1864 in Washington was deathly hot. In the blistering June sun, the superintendent of the Washington Arsenal, Thomas B. Brown, thoughtlessly set out to dry three pans of his special “Red Star” signal flare pellets in a little-used space behind a former storage building. These fireworks and his carelessness would kill 21 young women.

In coming and going, Brown would have crossed paths with some of the 104 hoop-skirted women and teenage girls who worked in the arsenal’s “laboratory” making cartridges for the Union Army.

Because the aggressive armies of Gens. Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman and Phillip Sheridan were firing cartridges as fast as Rebel targets could be sighted, arsenal officials recently had expanded its output by converting that old storage facility into a cartridge production center.

The cartridges the sons of Northern dairy farmers fired with deadly effect at the sons of Southern cotton growers were made by the impoverished daughters of working-class residents of the “Island,” the decrepit neighborhood bordering the northern entrance to the arsenal.

Most of the women were young; many were Irish, some were widows, but all were poor. Women held these jobs because 19th-century bureaucrats thought their small hands and dexterous fingers made this low-paid work more efficient.

Their tasks — assembling ammunition boxes, loading paper cylinders with gunpowder and “choking” the cartridges closed — were divided among the laboratory’s four rooms. “Choking,” the final step in the process, was done by about 30 young women in one of the end rooms.

The women, sitting in groups of four or five on uncomfortable wooden benches, spread themselves around a long worktable with supplies conveniently positioned. Their job was to insert a lead Minie ball into a powder-filled paper tube.

They would then close the cartridge in a manner that allowed an adrenaline-filled battlefield soldier to rip off its paper flange quickly with his teeth and pour the precisely measured load of powder and shot down the barrel of his mortally accurate .58 caliber musket.

As cartridges were completed, the women placed them in wooden ammunition boxes sitting within arm’s reach. By noon on a typical workday, these women — surrounded by barrels of gunpowder and seated between crates of unstopped cartridges — would have 500 rounds of live ammunition sitting three feet to their front.

June 17, 1864, with its heat and subsequent events, was not to be a typical day.

On that Friday, just before noon, the heat that pushed city thermometers toward the 100-degree mark also caused Mr. Brown’s Red Stars to combust spontaneously, sending streamers of fire-tailed star pellets arching randomly through the summer sky.

In those days, before screened windows were common, a flaming pellet found its way into the “choking room” through one of its open windows and landed on the worktable. A ribbon of flame shot across the countertop and, as if aimed by a Georgia sharpshooter, honed in on an open barrel of gunpowder. In an instant, an explosion lifted the roof off the building, filled the room with flames, killed 18 young women and sent a dozen others in a race for their lives. Three of them would die.

Some who survived the incinerating blast found themselves hampered, either by the difficulty of freeing themselves from the heavy benches that held them close to their workstations or by ankle-length skirts that hindered quick movement. These would suffocate and die as the encompassing blaze fed on increasingly scarce oxygen.

Others, when fleeing, brushed against burning furniture and discovered too late that their hoop skirts attracted flames like fiendish magnets. The summer-weight cotton cloth, untreated by any retardant, burned like a torch.

A few, with clothing ablaze, made it through the inferno to the flame-free world outside and into the arms of their male co-workers, who, fighting these personal fires barehanded, suffered scarring burns of their own. In the explosion and its aftermath, 21 died; eight were so badly burned it was impossible to identify them.

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered that all expenses associated with a respectful and dignified funeral be borne by the War Department. Acting under Stanton’s directive, the arsenal’s commandant placed all funeral arrangements in the hands of the arsenal workers.

A workers committee planned and executed the largest and most emotional funeral the capital had seen to that time.

On Saturday, the families of 20-year-old Johanna Connor, Catherine Horan, Bridget Dunn and Catherine Hull for religious reasons, held private services and separate burials in the Catholic cemetery at Mount Olivet.

On Sunday, 15 women were memorialized in an interdenominational funeral service on the lawn of the arsenal. Each lay in a beautifully handcrafted coffin made by her co-workers in the arsenal’s carpentry shop. Atop each coffin was a silver-plated plaque with the victim’s name or, when it proved impossible to determine, the simple word “unknown.”

The family of 13-year-old Sally McElfresh after private home services, joined the public funeral procession as it moved north up the Island’s main thoroughfare and onto Pennsylvania Avenue.

That procession, stretching for several miles and taking more than a half-hour to pass any particular spot, moved solemnly between rows of silent mourners. With heads bowed, Washingtonians reverently stopped to show respect to the dead women most had never met in life.

A hospital band and a contingent of the Sons of Temperance led the way. Following in the elegant horse-drawn carriage of the funeral’s “chief mourner” was President Lincoln in the company of Stanton, his secretary of war.

At the nondenominational Congressional Cemetery, two large graves awaited the arsenal women. In one were placed the eight “unknowns.” Unidentifiable were the bodies of 18-year-old Melissa Adams, Emma Baird, Kate Brosnahan, Mary Burroughs, Susie Harris, Louisa Lloyd, Ellen Roche and Mrs. W.E. Tippett.

Placed in the second grave were:, Lizzie Brahler, Bettie Branagan, Emily Collins, Eliza Lacey, Julie McEwen,and Maggie Yonson, six of the known victims. Mrs. Pinkey Scott, having survived the blast and suffered for three weeks, finally succumbed to her burns and was buried with her co-workers on July 6, 1864. The other two known victims, Sally McElfresh and Annie Bache, were buried in nearby family plots.

As the coffins were lowered and consoling funeral prayers were said over the graves, mourning family members and grieving friends responded to each heavenly invocation with a heartfelt, “Farewell sisters, farewell!” All then departed to continue their saddened lives with as much fortitude and hope as faith and circumstance would allow.

Returning to the arsenal on Monday morning, the workers committee initiated a citywide effort to raise $3,000 to have a suitable monument placed over the women’s graves.

One year later, sculptor Lot Flannery’s elegantly carved tribute listing the names of the 21 victims was dedicated to the silent mission of preserving the women’s memory. At the top of the 25-foot monument stands the statue of a grieving young woman, whose demurely folded hands andsadly downcast eyes imploreall who pass to not forget her sisters and the interrupted lives of the dead women.

Brian Bergin is writing a book on the arsenal explosion. He would welcome information from anyone with a family history, a diary, a photo or an artifact associated with the disaster. He can be reached at

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