Around 2 p.m. on September 17, 1862, a series of powerful explosions ripped through the U.S. Army Arsenal in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, just as many of the girls working there had left their benches to collect their wages. Residents of Allegheny and nearby Pittsburgh, many of whom had become aware of a major battle taking place that day at Antietam Creek in Maryland, braced for what they believed was a Confederate invasion. People who crowded into the streets after the blasts followed a column of smoke that rose from the burning buildings and found what the Pittsburgh Gazette called “an appalling sight.” The roof of the building where young women and girls worked assembling cartridges had collapsed, and flames enveloped its remains. Powerful blasts caused by exploding barrels of gunpowder had blown out the windows and doors of surrounding buildings.
Eyewitnesses described a ghastly scene. Terrified girls ran screaming from the building with their clothes on fire, their faces blackened and unrecognizable. Some jumped from the windows, while others were trampled under foot by panic-stricken workers. Many of the witnesses tried to help the victims, who pleaded with onlookers to tear the burning clothes from their bodies. Mary Jane Black was just returning to her post after picking up her pay when she heard screams and, turning in the direction of the sound, saw “two girls behind me; they were on fire; their faces were burning and blood running from them. I pulled the clothes off one of them; while I was doing this, the other one ran up and begged me to cover her.”
Onlookers discovered remains riddled by shells, cartridges and Minié balls. Bodies as well as stray limbs, bones and scraps of clothing were found hundreds of feet from the explosion—on the streets, in the Allegheny River and suspended in the trees that lined the arsenal grounds. Newspaper reporters searched for words to describe the pitiful remains of the victims:
In some places [bodies] lay in heaps, and burnt as rapidly as pine wood, until the flames were extinguished by the firemen. In other places nothing could be seen but the whitened and consuming bones, the intensity of the heat having consumed every particle of flesh. The steel bands remaining from the hoop skirts of the unfortunate girls, marked the place where many of them had perished.
In a macabre postscript, the Gazette noted that “curiosity hunters” had carried away human remains as souvenirs of the blast. Initial reports underestimated the death toll, putting it at 39; more than a year later, townspeople confirmed that 78 people, mostly women and young girls, had actually died in the accident. The remains of most were never identified, but the majority of the victims were young. Some may have been African Americans.
The coroner began investigating the cause of the disaster and convened a jury to hear testimony from survivors and witnesses. On September 27, just 10 days after the incident, the coroner issued a damning verdict. He found three officers and two civilians in charge of the arsenal guilty of “gross negligence” and demanded that the U.S. Army take measures “to ensure the safety of the lives and property of our people from a calamity far more destructive and appalling than has yet befallen us.” Since he had no authority to compel the Army to act, however, the verdict expressed civilian concerns about the arsenal rather than making a realistic demand that the Army change its operating procedures.
By 1862 the U.S. Army regularly employed women and young girls to make cartridges at a number of arsenals situated in urban areas in the North. The work fell outside what middle-class Americans considered appropriate for women. Newspaper articles about the “appalling disaster” in Pennsylvania, as well as the coroner’s condemnation of the Army’s failure to protect the females in its employ, voiced concern about the fact that women’s lives had been put at risk in this fashion. Although the work was both dirty and dangerous, there is no evidence to suggest that the women themselves were actually reluctant to do the work. In fact there were always more women seeking work than positions available in the arsenals.
But the horrific scene in Allegheny also brought to mind a far more unsettling scenario for many locals: that the war itself might come to the North. It suggested that the bloody conflict being waged in Southern fields, towns and homes could spread as far north as Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York or Boston, and endanger women as well as children. It was seen by some as presaging a change in the whole social order, a permanently transformed way of life. Once women were employed to make war, some thought they were more likely to become its victims.
Before many of the fallen could be identified—and indeed before anyone could be sure how many had actually died—townspeople turned out to bury the victims at a ceremony held in front of what was described as a “large deep pit” holding the remains of some of the fallen women. The Rev. Richard Lea, whose church was close to the arsenal, pleaded with them to forget the grim disaster scene and instead remember how they had come together in an effort to help the “noble Union girls.”
For years the blast remained part of Pittsburgh residents’ memory of the war, permanently entangled with their recollections of the bloody fighting at Antietam. On the first anniversary of the blast, townspeople erected a monument at the grave, where “female beauty and manhood’s vigor commingle,” testifying not only to their inability to separate the mangled remains of the victims but also to their unwillingness to forget the day the war came home to their community.
Burying the dead arsenal workers did not end the controversy over employing women in the rapidly expanding Union war machine. Federal arsenals and private contractors increasingly relied on female labor as the war continued, and women workers quickly began learning to negotiate the politics of their new workplaces.
The decision to hire women at arsenals had been based on a matter-of-fact assessment of labor needs. In Indianapolis, for example, an observer visiting a factory noted with approval the arrival of women at that facility in June 1861:
[N]inety blushing young virgins and elderly matrons are constantly employed, making Colt’s revolver cartridges, common musket, rifled musket, Minie, Enfield, ball and buckshot cartridges. It is a beautiful and patriotic sight to see the young and tender happy in the bloody work. They laugh and chat gaily…as they roll up the balls and fix the fatal charge intended to let daylight through some man’s heart.
Nothing in the records of the federal arsenals at Watertown, Mass., or Allegheny suggests that the U.S. Army resisted introducing women into these settings. In contrast to the Army’s reluctance to hire women, and especially young women, to serve as nurses in field hospitals—out of concern that their presence might disrupt discipline—officers in charge of arsenals began employing women early in the war.
The Army’s decision to open munitions work to women was based on commonly held assumptions that girls and women were more obedient than men. The workers who did this kind of labor were often young, and, unlike the women who sought nursing appointments, armory workers were more motivated by wage earning than idealism. The work was simple and repetitive, but it required extreme care. Cartridge-formers placed lead balls in paper tubes, filled the tubes with gunpowder, then tied up the loose ends. Colonel Thomas B. Brown of the arsenal in Washington, D.C., where 20 women would die in a July 1864 fire, referred to the process as “choking cartridges.” Spilled gunpowder was carefully swept from workbenches and floors several times a day. Workers wore special slippers or moccasins, and movement in and out of the rooms containing gunpowder was severely restricted.
Colonel John Symington began replacing the teenage boys who had been working at Allegheny with young women after the boys flouted common-sense safety precautions in the powder rooms. Arsenal employees had repeatedly found matches in the powder rooms, and on at least two occasions matches were discovered packed with cartridges awaiting shipment to the front. Symington decided in October 1861, six months into the war, to “supply their places with females.” His call for female applicants garnered a brisk response, and Symington was able to quickly fill the cartridge-former positions with women and girls living in the neighborhood just west of Pittsburgh. Once women were employed in the powder rooms, Colonel Symington reported no additional discipline problems.
Colonel Thomas Rodman, commanding officer of the Watertown Arsenal outside Boston, began employing women as cartridge-formers in October 1861, possibly with a similar desire to improve discipline at the facility. Women had been used to stitch cartridge bags before the war began, a move that likely paved the way for Rodman to expand their numbers at a time when the arsenal was working hard to keep pace with the U.S. Army’s growing demand for materiel.
Similar to the Allegheny Arsenal, Watertown employed local women, many of them working alongside family members—often in an effort to support families in the absence of fathers and brothers who had gone off to war. For example, 18-year-old Violet Smith worked with a brother and at least one sister at the arsenal to help support their mother after their father died in combat. Nearly half of the more than 300 women employed at Watertown worked alongside their sisters, mothers and female cousins in the cylinder rooms. Working-class families often sent more than one daughter to work in munitions factories, hoping that the girls would look after one another.
As if to allay fears that war manufacturing was not women’s work, Harper’s Weekly featured Watertown’s arsenal in a July 1861 cover highlighting the division of labor at the factory, comparable to that in a middle-class home. In one illustration (P. 58), neatly dressed women are seated at long benches in a crowded room. The women’s coats and hats hang close by as they lean into their work, some with their sleeves pushed up, while a uniformed officer carefully supervises their production. No supervisor monitors the men toiling away in another illustration, opposite, which shows the men seated, still wearing their hats. “Abundant life was in evidence,” the Weekly pointed out, and “in spite of the dread nature of the task an occasional overflow of animal spirits, light jokes and merry laughter, as the employees approached or departed from their daily duties.”
The images and accompanying descriptions assured readers that having women on the arsenal grounds did not pose a threat to military discipline. Once they finished their work, the engraving implied, the women would put on their decent coats and hats and return home. Nothing here would have raised readers’ concerns about the potential hazards of working with gunpowder, or foreshadowed how such a tranquil scene could turn tragic in an instant.
Like the women who served as spinners at the Lowell, Mass., textile mills, family connections at the Watertown Arsenal contributed to a feeling of esprit de corps among the women and a willingness to take chances to improve working conditions. Before the war, women who worked in textile manufacturing and some other industries sent petitions to their employers demanding protection of their work and protesting cuts in pay. The cartridge-chokers inherited this tradition. Watertown’s women petitioned their superiors about wages, employment practices and also safety violations.
But arsenal work was not really comparable to textile work. For one thing, the women who manufactured cartridges labored in an unfamiliar setting that was at times hostile. Arsenal commanders like Colonel Thomas Rodman encouraged competitiveness and experimentation; male workers who made improvements in materiel were rewarded with accolades and promotion. Although the U.S. Army Ordnance Department issued strict rules regarding the safe handling of gunpowder and other explosive materials, unofficial experimentation was common on arsenal grounds.
Investigations at both the Allegheny and Watertown arsenals revealed that some of the men had been conducting unauthorized experiments with gunpowder. And at Watertown those experiments were conducted in close proximity to the cylinder room. Watertown’s women employees registered their misgivings about their male co-workers’ thrill-seeking activities and petitioned their superiors to adhere to safety regulations. When Colonel Rodman didn’t respond, they appealed to a local congressman, who launched a thorough investigation of the integrated workplace. The resulting inquiry was wide-ranging and, in part, politically motivated. Some investigators went to great lengths to feed civilian suspicions about the Army’s employment of women in the manufacture of war materiel. To do so, they painted a picture of what to modern observers seems like a 19th-century version of the Tailhook scandal.
Although the women’s petition had identified safety and hiring practices as their concerns in 1864, the civilian investigators focused disproportionately on sexual improprieties at the Watertown Arsenal. Asking probing and leading questions, congressmen found much to interest and titillate. Witnesses described preferential treatment granted to women who were the regular “playmates” of their male superiors. They said that men circulated pornographic images among the women, and they also reported an episode in which men talked about placing a fan in the powder room to blow the women’s dresses. Witnesses were asked about unofficial parties on arsenal grounds, after-hour pageants and all manner of horseplay that occurred there. Men and women called to testify about the culture of the Watertown Arsenal recounted how men “fooled with the girls” in their offices and kept some women secretly employed at the facility during slow periods for their own entertainment and pleasure. One witness described in detail how male employees drew pornographic pictures and showed them to the women, including pictures of men with long penises and of couples having sex while others watched.
The women who were called to testify told these stories with some reluctance, perhaps because they had focused their concerns on the mismanaging of gunpowder and now investigators were trying to uncover a sexual scandal that could prove to be devastating. Or maybe they were just uncomfortable talking about such topics with congressmen. They must have realized that they stood to lose jobs that offered good pay and a measure of patriotic fulfillment—benefits women did not enjoy in textile manufacturing or domestic work. The cartridge-chokers may well have been relieved that the investigation did not end the practice of hiring women workers—at least not during the war—but safety continued to be an issue.
A fire at the Washington Arsenal on June 17, 1864, coincided with news of the beginning of Ulysses S. Grant’s important campaign in Petersburg, Va., once again linking the fate of those involved in war manufacturing with that of the men at the front—and bringing the war home to Northerners in tragic fashion. News of the intense fighting in Petersburg was followed by editorials predicting that Richmond would soon fall to Union forces. Southern journals carried their own predictions, as Confederate forces kept William T. Sherman out of Atlanta and residents of the besieged city remained resolved.
The newspapers described the Washington Arsenal as “a most melancholy catastrophe,” but the city seems to have moved swiftly to a matter-of-fact assessment of the causes of the conflagration and laid the victims to rest. The shock with which the North had earlier responded to female casualties in munitions work had dulled to some extent by the time the war dragged on into its fourth year. Then too, arsenal accidents involving girls and young women were no longer so unusual.
The cause of the Washington accident, exploding fireworks that flew into the cartridge room, would have come as little surprise to those familiar with the work of Colonel Thomas Brown, who was well known for his expertise in pyrotechnics. The coroner arrived at the arsenal and began to question witnesses even as bodies were still being pulled out of the rubble. Casualty numbers varied from 17 dead to 22.
The intensity of the blaze meant little was left behind to help identify the victims. Witnesses described a landscape of smoking hoopskirts where the women had been working. The Washington Star offered a straightforward assessment of the situation when it warned arsenal workers against wearing hoops in the factories, explaining that they had “caged” the women’s bodies and had allowed the fire to encroach on their skirts, encouraging “the flames to fasten upon them with fatal effect.”
On June 19, two days after the fire, residents of the capital turned out en masse for the funeral despite oppressive heat, crowding into the streets and congregating at the Congressional Cemetery. President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton accompanied the procession. Many family members were still in shock at the loss of their sisters and daughters, resulting in some harrowing scenes as grieving relatives tried to seize the coffins of their loved ones. They were kept in check by the capital’s police force and soldiers camped in the city.
Following the army’s lead, the public seems to have come to terms with having women working in war manufacturing—at least for the duration of the conflict. In the North this meant becoming accustomed to having the conflict hit home in their own neighborhoods. Of course, warfare had already become part of life in the North, as people often gathered in the streets to hear news about casualties, children greeted injured and convalescent soldiers at railroad stations and women made their way to and from their jobs.
In Pittsburgh, the Civil War generation would never forget that women as well as men lost their lives on September 17, 1862, both soldiers who died fighting on the banks of Antietam Creek and female munitions workers who perished in a horrific accident. And while most Americans today believe the Northern home front remained free from danger throughout the war—allowing Union women to stand resolutely, but safely, to the rear of the action, out of harm’s way—we’ve never viewed the Southern home front that way. Maybe it’s time to give Northern women their due.
Judith Giesberg is an associate professor at Villanova University. Her research on Union working-class women led to her latest book, Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front.