Women’s Deadly, Unsung War Work

“Choking cartridges” for the Union Army was legitimate war work for “noble Union girls” during the Civil War. The repetitive work required putting lead balls into a paper tube, filling the tube with gunpowder, and tying up both ends. Spilled gunpowder was swept up often during the day, the women wore special shoes, and movement was restricted. But with and without safety precautions, this essential wartime munitions work claimed the lives of nearly 100 women  in explosions as fiery and fierce as any on a battlefield.

By October of 1861, Watertown, Massachusetts federal arsenal commander Col. Thomas Rodman listed 158 women on the roll books as cartridge formers. They were often sisters or wives of men employed at the arsenal; 18-year-old Violet Smith, her brother, and her sister supported themselves and their mother by working at the arsenal while their father was away at war.

Many of the new arsenal workers had been domestics, washerwomen, or dressmakers. Some had sewn clothing for the U.S. Army, jobs most often claimed by widows or sisters of soldiers. But cartridge formers earned the most money, from $14 to $25 a month for long hours, six days a week. Some stitched cartridge bags at home for 2 cents a piece. Camaraderie was reportedly high among the women, because of the importance of their work to the Union Army.

At the U.S. Army’s Allegheny Arsenal near Pittsburgh, the Colonel of Ordinance, John Symington, preferred to hire girls as cartridge formers, after boys had proven too careless with safety precautions.

On the afternoon of Sept. 17, 1862, a series of explosions ripped through the arsenal, loud enough to be heard in Pittsburgh two miles away. Some people thought it was a Confederate attack. Those who rushed to the scene, reported the Pittsburgh Gazette, found “an appalling sight.” The arsenal’s roof had collapsed and the laboratory was in flames. “Girls ran screaming in terror and agony from the building with their clothes on fire and their faces blackened and unrecognizable. As the building burned, women jumped from the windows, and others were trampled underfoot by terrified women trying to escape. Witnesses tried to help fleeing women who pleaded with onlookers to tear burning clothes from their bodies.”

Mary Jane Black worked at the arsenal, but had left her post to collect her pay right before the explosion. When she heard screams and 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.” A few bones and the steel bands used to stiffen their hoop skirts were all that was left of some victims. Limbs, bones, clothing, and bodies were found hundreds of feet from the explosion, on the streets and in the Allegheny River. Many could not be identified, and were buried in a mass grave.

The explosion was probably caused by the metal shoe of a horse striking a spark which touched off loose powder in the roadway near the lab, which then traveled to the porch and set off several barrels of gunpowder, which may have been uncovered. The barrels may also have been re-used and leaking powder. On Sept. 17, 1862, the coroner’s jury held that the accident was caused by the “gross negligence” of Col. John Symington and his subordinates in allowing loose powder to accumulate on the roadway and elsewhere.

In September of 1862, the tragedy of twenty thousand dead in the Battle of Antietam, the most casualties in a single day of the entire Civil War, forever overshadows the tragedy of the most civilian deaths in a single day, the 78 workers at the U.S. Alleghany Arsenal in Pennsylvania.

Sources include: Travelchannel.com; Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front, by Judith Giesberg (University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 1, 2008; Harper’s Weekly, July 20, 1861.

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Facts to Fiction:

Read an excerpt of Jennifer Wilke’s historical novel-in-progress, The Color of Prayer,

inspired by these historical facts & Edwin Lybarger’s Civil War diaries.

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