For some civilians the American Civil War was as dangerous in their workplaces as it was to the soldiers on the battlefield. The explosion at the Washington D.C. Arsenal on June 17, 1864 was a case in point. Similar to the explosion on Brown’s Island in Richmond that took place on March 13, 1863, many of the details of the two catastrophes were eerily similar.
Most of the workers at both factories were Irish immigrants and most were young women. It was found that young women had small enough hands to build the primers and ammunition that both facilities made. Fifty grains of gunpowder, no more, no less, filled each and every cartridge. The women sat together at long benches pulled up to a central table. For one person to get up from her seat, everyone on the bench had to move. Between the heat and the skirts and the silence and the benches, the choking room workers were trapped. Lunchtime, however, was a respite from these constraints, and that break approached.
At ten minutes past twelve o’clock, the quarter of the city adjacent to the United States Arsenal, near the foot of Four-and-a-half Street, was startled by an explosion, followed by a column of smoke rising from the Arsenal grounds. The explosion of unknown origins took place in a long building that was called the laboratory. It was in this building that the shells were charged.
At twenty minutes past one the fire was extinguished, and some bodies and fragments of bodies were taken out of the ruins. Contemporary descriptions of the scene say that it was horrible beyond description. The building was filled with bodies and limbs, some charred beyond recognition. Miraculously, some 250 workers, mostly woman, were able to escape from the inferno.
Many of the workers lived in the immediate area and confusion reigned as friends and relatives thronged the area searching for their loved ones. By 3:00 PM some 18 or 19 bodies had been removed from the destroyed laboratory, most unrecognizable.
The building destroyed was about one hundred feet long on the south end of the yard with wooden walls and roof. It is used for charging artillery shells. On the day of the explosion the workers were preparing signal rockets and the explosion is accounted for by the ignition of red stars used in these stages.
Arsenal Superintendent Thomas Brown had laid star flares out to dry nearby. He had done this many times in the previous months, but June 17th was a day hotter than most, possibly one of the hottest since the superintendent had found this new spot to dry fireworks to be used for July 4th celebrations. The tray that held the star flares lay only 35 feet from the choking room end of the laboratory. Just before noon, the flares began to explode. In a matter of seconds, incendiaries going off 35 feet from the choking room became flares shooting into the building.
A spark was seen to fall from a chimney of the cartridge laboratory by a son of the superintendent of the Arsenal, and it is supposed that the stars were set on fire. The theory is that the stars became heated by the sun beyond the maximum point and were set on fire. The flames from these stars dashed into the building and caused the explosion.
Twenty-one girls and women were killed in the tragedy. Later that same day, both the Army and the District’s coroner conducted an investigation of the fire. Fault was found with the Superintendent and various lax practices. He faced no consequences that written history offers.
The victims were mostly (But not exclusively) Irish-Americans including Melissa Adams, Emma J. Baird, Lizzie Brahler, Kate Branahan, Elizabeth Brannagan, Mary Burroughs, Emily Collins, Susan Harris, Eliza Lacy, Louisa Lloyd, Julia McEwen, Ellen Roche, Pinkey Scott, Mrs. W. E. Tippett and Maggie Yonson, Annie Roche, Sallie McElfresh, Johannah Connor, Bridget Dunn, Catherine Horan and Catherine Hull.
The War Department paid all fees for funerals. Secretary Stanton notified the Commandant of the Arsenal that “You will not spare any means to express the respect and sympathy of the government for the deceased and their surviving friends.”
The Washington Arsenal was located where Fort Lesley McNair sits today, its first earth works being built there in 1791 and an arsenal opening along the same 28-acre location in 1801. Intended to be a major defense point for the city, the fort was abandoned by American troops during the British invasion of Washington in 1814. Federal troops took as much gunpowder as they could carry from the arsenal and hid the rest left at the fort inside a well.
The Washington Arsenal was closed in 1881 and the post was handed over to the Quartermaster Corps who renamed it The Washington Barracks. From 1898 until 1909, an army hospital was run on the site. It was here that Major Walter Reed researched his work on malaria. He died of peritonitis after an appendectomy at the post in 1902. In 1948, the post was renamed in honor of Lt. General Lesley J. McNair.