Tuesday marked the 150th Anniversary of the Washington Arsenal Explosion. The explosion left 21 girls, mostly poor Irish immigrant women, dead. The fire was a sensation at the time with President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edward Stanton leading the mourners at the funeral.
On Wednesday the SUVCW held ceremonies at Congressional Cemetery and Fort McNair in Washington, DC to mark the anniversary of the fire and their funeral. Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore was on hand to lay a wreath. In his remarks, Foreign Minister Gilmore gave specific thanks to the SUVCW for its work to make sure these women were not forgotten.
When the Arsenal Explosion occurred in 1864 the Washington Arsenal was the largest Federal arsenal where the Union Army created and stored their ammunition. Because women had much more slender fingers they were better able to pack the cartridges containing the gunpowder in their casings. Hundreds of women described as “mostly young and very poor Irish women and girls” were employed in the very vital jobs of creating the ammunition for the war effort.
For many penniless emigrants it was their only hope of a job in the terrible circumstances of the time. Conditions were horrific and very dangerous for the women who worked in sweltering conditions surrounded by inflammable material that could blow at any time.
On 17 June 1864, however, something went horribly wrong when a spark lit and caused a massive explosion igniting the 120,000 cartridges containing gunpowder. 21 girls were burnt alive, their screams carrying far and wide as shocked co-workers fled the scene.
A contemporary account from the Daily National Intelligencer captured the scene:
“The scene was horrible beyond description. Under the metal roof of the building were seething bodies and limbs, mangled scorched and charred beyond the possibility of identification. Up to three o’clock eighteen or nineteen bodies had been taken from the ruins. They were so charred as to defy identification. Three women were taken out alive and placed in the hospital.
An agonized crowd of relatives rushed to the spot to learn tidings of their daughters or sisters who were known to have been in the fated building.”
Witnesses said the noise from the explosion was deafening and created a massive panic with hundreds of girls rushing for the single exit together causing mass hysteria and confusion.
Irish immigrant Mary Jane Black, an arsenal worker, said “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 .”
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 were among those burned alive.
President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edward Stanton attended the funeral services three days later as all of Washington mourned.
Stanton stated to army authorities: “You will not spare any means or expense to express the respect and sympathy of the government for the deceased and their surviving friends.”
Several of the Irish girls, Bridget Dunn, Margaret Horan, Johanna Connors, and Rebecca Hall were buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in a Catholic ceremony.
Over $3,000 was raised at a time when $300 was average yearly wage. A tall marble monument in honor of the girls was carved by Irish American sculptor Lot Flannery and stands today in the Congressional Cemetery near Capitol Hill. It is simply entitled “Grief.”