ghosts of dc

This is a first guest post by D.C. history blog Ghosts of DC. It was written by GODC contributor Andrea Pawley.

view of washington arsenal
View of Washington Arsenal ca 1860, Courtesy of National Defense University

Much of this post is based on Washington Arsenal Explosion: Civil War Disaster in the Capital by Brian Bergin, edited by Erin Bergin Vorheis (The History Press, 2012).

Friday, June 17th, 1864, was hot, especially for the women of the Washington Arsenal at the tip of what is now Fort McNair. Mothers and daughters, all of them from families poor enough to need the limited income generated by paid female labor at the time, sweltered beneath many layers of clothing topped by a hooped skirt. Over two dozen women and girls worked at the Arsenal’s laboratory making explosives used by Union soldiers fighting in the Civil War.

The women and girls who worked in the choking room at the laboratory weren’t allowed to talk, an activity considered by their superiors to be too distracting to their very precise effort. 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.

Unbeknownst to the choking room workers or their supervisors, 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. What happened next was the largest single-day tragedy in the history of Washington City to that time.

julia grant in 1860s dress
Julia Grant in 1860s Dress

Explosions rocked the choking room. Fire consumed it. The tin roof was lifted from its wood and brick walls. Trapped by social circumstances on so many levels, most of the women and girls inside the laboratory died. Some passed away immediately, their lungs, clothing, and skin incinerated by super-heated gas. Others escaped the laboratory to die over the subsequent hours and days. In all, nineteen women and girls perished. The bodies of eight were burned beyond all recognition.

view of destroyed arsenal building
View of Destroyed Arsenal Building June 17, 1864, Courtesy National Defense University

The survivors fled to their homes to be treated by relatives in the crude manner of the time’s medical treatments. 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 times allowed only for the most basic compensation of the injured and the families of the dead. A collection was taken up by the community to pay for the funeral, and many who perished were buried at Congressional Cemetery. The monument to the twenty-one women and girls who died still stands.

monument to the victims
Monument to the victims of the 1864 explosion at the Washington, DC Arsenal. In the Congressional Cemetery, Washington, DC

Visit Ghosts of D.C. for more long-forgotten stories about the nation's capital.

Related on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • Rare Civil War Photographs Revealed

    Cherokee colonel in the Confederate States Army, who was elected as an Arkansas representative in the Confederate Congress (1835–1890). Original 4.25 x 6.5 cabinet photo of Boudinot, by C. M. Bell of Washington, signed in the lower border in black ink, “Your friend, E. C. Boudinot.” In fine condition, with some trivial soiling and mild silvering to dark areas of the image. <a href="http://www.rrauction.com/browse_gallery.cfm?category=120">RR Auction COA</a>

  • Rare Civil War Photographs Revealed

    Union general (1826–1885) hailed at the beginning of the Civil War as the ‘Young Napoleon,’ who was defeated for the presidency in 1864 by Abraham Lincoln. Original 2.25 x 4 carte-de-visite three-quarter length portrait of McClellan in uniform, by E. & H. T. Anthony of New York, signed in the lower border in black ink, “Geo. B. McClellan, Maj. Gnl USA.” Light scattered marks, speckling, and foxing to the image, light dings to the lower corner tips, and trivial silvering to dark areas of the image, otherwise fine condition. Pre-certified PSA/DNA and <a href="http://www.rrauction.com/browse_gallery.cfm?category=120">RR Auction COA</a>.

  • Rare Civil War Photographs Revealed

    Confederate general (1821–1904) who distinguished himself at Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chickamauga. ALS, one page, 5.25 x 7.25, April 20, 1896. Letter to a Colonel. In part: “I suppose that my time may be taken up by friends who have called me, to the exclusion of other matters, but hope to avail myself of the pleasurable opportunity to call to see you.” Letter is inlaid to a slightly larger off-white sheet. In fine condition, with a uniform shade of mild toning and pencil notations to bottom edge. Pre-certified PSA/DNA and <a href="http://www.rrauction.com/browse_gallery.cfm?category=120">RR Auction COA</a>.

  • Rare Civil War Photographs Revealed

    Career army officer and the most successful general of the Confederate forces during the Civil War (1807–1870). He eventually commanded all Confederate armies as general-in-chief. His victories against superior forces in an ultimately losing cause won him enduring fame. After the war, he urged sectional reconciliation, and spent his final years as president of the school that would come to bear his name, Washington and Lee University. Important war-dated ALS signed “R. E. Lee,” one page, 5 x 7, Petersburg, March 24, 1865. Letter to “Genl. J. E. Johnston, at Smithfield, N. C.” In full: “I hope that there is some mistake about 28th Corps as I never before heard of it. Sheridan has one division of his Cav. at Tunstalls Station the other at White House. Has sent down river his broken down horses & I know nothing to indicate his moving to N. C. I think Sherman will move to Weldon on account of procuring supplies from Counties along route. Endeavor to get them out of his way. We cannot fight Grant to advantage as long as he holds his entrenchments.” Old repairs to reverse of several fragile intersecting folds and small tears, a horizontal fold through signature, damp staining to right side of letter lightly affecting some words of text and a bit of the signature, and portions of text and signature a bit light, but still completely legible, otherwise very good condition. Besieged in the crucial railroad supply town of Petersburg, Virginia since June 1864, Lee’s troops spent nine brutal months attempting to force Grant's army to retreat. With Philip Sheridan's cavalry on the way from the Shenandoah Valley with another 50,000 Union troops, and Sherman preparing to join Grant from the Carolinas (after defeating this letter's recipient, Joseph E. Johnston, in the decisive Battle of Bentonville on March 21), the already severely weakened and outnumbered Confederate forces were running out of time. In the early morning hours of March 25, 1865, Lee ordered a surprise attack on the Union lines at Fort Stedman under Maj. Gen. John Brown Gordon, hoping to force Grant to retreat and protect his supply depot at City Point. Lacking the power to press forward, however, the Confederates were unable to withstand the Union's counterattack and retreated to their original defensive lines. Finally yielding to the overwhelming pressure and unavoidable defeat, Lee abandoned both cities in April 1865, leading to his surrender at Appomattox on April 12. Accounting for generals Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan as the forces mount against him, this extraordinary letter to Johnston, written one day before the final attempt at securing Virginia, is one of the finest Lee pieces we have ever offered. Pre-certified John Reznikoff/PSA/DNA and <a href="http://www.rrauction.com/browse_gallery.cfm?category=120">RR Auction COA</a>.

  • Rare Civil War Photographs Revealed

    Union general (1824–1886) who distinguished himself in the Battle of Gettysburg and later commanded Custer and the 7th Cavalry against the Cheyenne in the disastrous 1867 campaign known as ‘Hancock’s War.’ Original 2.5 x 3.75 carte-de-visite bust portrait of Hancock in uniform, by F. Gutekunst of Philadelphia, signed at the bottom of the image in black ink, “Winfd. S. Hancock, Major Gen. USA.” In very good condition, with a couple light creases to the corners, light scattered soiling, and a trimmed top edge. Pre-certified PSA/DNA and <a href="http://www.rrauction.com/browse_gallery.cfm?category=120">RR Auction COA</a>.

  • Rare Civil War Photographs Revealed

    Unsigned original 2.5 x 3.75 carte-de-visite portrait of an older Davis, by Netterville Briggs of Leamington. In very good condition, with light scattered surface marks and spots, and trimmed top and bottom edges. <a href="http://www.rrauction.com/browse_gallery.cfm?category=120">RR Auction COA</a>

  • Rare Civil War Photographs Revealed

    Partly-printed engraved DS, signed “Ro: Tyler,” one page, 13.25 x 13, February 5, 1863. Confederate States of America Loan for $1000 plus interest at the rate of eight percent, “to provide a War Tax for their redemption.” Bottom of the document retains 18 payment coupons. Signed at the conclusion by Register of the Treasury Robert Tyler. Double-matted to an overall size of 17.25 x 16.5. Intersecting folds, scattered creases, and some light toning and soiling, otherwise fine condition. <a href="http://www.rrauction.com/browse_gallery.cfm?category=120">RR Auction COA</a>

  • Rare Civil War Photographs Revealed

    Brigadier General (1827–1911) in the Confederate States Army during the Civil War, who later served as Mayor of Dallas, Texas. ALS signed “W. L. Cabell, Lieut General U. C. Veterans, Trans Miss Dept,” one page, lightly-lined, 8 x 9.5, illustrated Trans-Mississippi Department United Confederate Veterans letterhead, May 1909. Letter to F. H. Meserve. In full: “I return you your two pictures They were taken either in Richmond Virginia or Little Rock Arkansas I would like to have a copy if you can furnish me one.” Pencil notation to bottom indicates letter was received on May 21, 1909. Intersecting folds, one vertical fold passing through a single letter of the signature, staple holes and paperclip impression to upper left corner, and trimmed edges, otherwise fine condition. Pre-certified PSA/DNA and <a href="http://www.rrauction.com/browse_gallery.cfm?category=120">RR Auction COA</a>.

  • Rare Civil War Photographs Revealed

    Vintage sepia 8 x 5 photo of Butterfield posing with General Joseph Hooker and several other officers at Lookout Valley in 1863, by J. B. Linn & Co. of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, signed and inscribed on the reverse in black ink, “E. H. Perkins, Jr., With compliments of his friend, Daniel Butterfield,” with Butterfield also identifying the soldiers in the photo adding “Photograph taken at Lookout Valley winter of 1863.” In very good condition, with scattered spotting and surface marks to image, pencil notation to bottom border, and some light damp staining to reverse. Hooker and his staff were victorious at Lookout Mountain which helped lift the siege of Union forces in Chattanooga, and opened the gateway into the Deep South. Pre-certified PSA/DNA and <a href="http://www.rrauction.com/browse_gallery.cfm?category=120">RR Auction COA</a>.

  • Rare Civil War Photographs Revealed

    Vintage sepia 8 x 5 photo of Butterfield posing with General Joseph Hooker and several other officers at Lookout Valley in 1863, by J. B. Linn & Co. of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, signed and inscribed on the reverse in black ink, “E. H. Perkins, Jr., With compliments of his friend, Daniel Butterfield,” with Butterfield also identifying the soldiers in the photo adding “Photograph taken at Lookout Valley winter of 1863.” In very good condition, with scattered spotting and surface marks to image, pencil notation to bottom border, and some light damp staining to reverse. Hooker and his staff were victorious at Lookout Mountain which helped lift the siege of Union forces in Chattanooga, and opened the gateway into the Deep South. Pre-certified PSA/DNA and <a href="http://www.rrauction.com/browse_gallery.cfm?category=120">RR Auction COA</a>.

  • Rare Civil War Photographs Revealed

    Union general and onetime commander of the Army of the Potomac (1824–1881); the distinctive whiskers he sported gave rise to the word ‘sideburns.’ Original 2.5 x 3.75 carte-de-visite full-length portrait of Burnside in uniform, by Brady of Washington, signed in the lower border in black ink, “A. E. Burnside, Gnl.” In very good condition, with scattered surface marks and light soiling, mild silvering to dark areas of the image, trimmed edges, and a small pencil notation to the lower left. Pre-certified PSA/DNA and <a href="http://www.rrauction.com/browse_gallery.cfm?category=120">RR Auction COA</a>.

  • Rare Civil War Photographs Revealed

    Original 2.25 x 4 carte-de-visite three-quarter length portrait of Buell in uniform, by an anonymous studio, signed in the lower border in black ink, “D. C. Buell, Major General.” In very good condition, with light scattered surface marks and toning, slight paper loss to the lower right corner tip, light silvering to dark areas of the image, and a skinned back. Pre-certified PSA/DNA and <a href="http://www.rrauction.com/browse_gallery.cfm?category=120">RR Auction COA</a>.

  • Rare Civil War Photographs Revealed

    Original photo entitled “Quarters of Men in Fort Sedgwick, Generally known as Fort Hell,” 9 x 7, the negative by T. H. O'Sullivan, positive by A. Gardner, Washington, dated May, 1865. No. 83 from Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War. Photo is affixed to its original 16 x 12.5 mount. Image depicts the crude earth and wood quarters of the fort’s soldiers. Scattered toning, soiling, and foxing to the mount, small hole above image, several other dings, and some light silvering to edges. Fort Sedgwick was one of the most advanced points of the Union lines, constantly inviting attack. Scarcely a day passed without heavy artillery raining down on the fort. A gripping image from Gardner’s work, considered the Civil War's best-known visual record which helped define how viewers would come to know the war. <a href="http://www.rrauction.com/browse_gallery.cfm?category=120">RR Auction COA</a>

  • Rare Civil War Photographs Revealed

    Unsigned original 2.25 x 4 carte-de-visite bust portrait of Breckinridge in uniform, by E. & H. T. Anthony of New York. In very good condition, with light scattered foxing and soiling, slight corner tip dings, and a bit of paper loss to the lower edge of the photo. <a href="http://www.rrauction.com/browse_gallery.cfm?category=120">RR Auction COA</a>

  • Rare Civil War Photographs Revealed

    Confederate general (1829–1911) who was well noted as a civil engineer and constructed the military fortifications that protected some of the Confederacy's most important seaports. Original war-dated 4.25 x 6.5 cabinet photo, signed below the image in black ink, “Head Qr Trans Min: Dept, Shreveport, La. 1864. Very Rspy, Your obt Sevt, W. R. Boggs, Brig Genl & Chief of Staff.” Light toning and foxing to borders and image, otherwise fine condition. <a href="http://www.rrauction.com/browse_gallery.cfm?category=120">RR Auction COA</a>

  • Rare Civil War Photographs Revealed

    Union general and secretary of war under Grant (1829–1890). Inadvertently, Belknap almost saved Custer from his fate at Little Bighorn, when Custer became embroiled in the scandal that resulted in Belknap’s impeachment and Grant’s censure of Custer. Original 2.5 x 4 carte-de-visite three-quarter length portrait of Belknap in uniform, by an anonymous studio, signed in the lower border in black ink, “Wm. W. Belknap, Brig. Genl. Vols.” In very good to fine condition, light toning, some mild silvering to dark areas of the image, and clipped corners. <a href="http://www.rrauction.com/browse_gallery.cfm?category=120">RR Auction COA</a>

  • Rare Civil War Photographs Revealed

    Unsigned original 2.25 x 2.75 oval portrait of Beauregard in uniform, by an anonymous studio, affixed to a 4.25 x 5.25 mount. In very good condition, with scattered surface marks and soiling, and light rippling and creases to edges. <a href="http://www.rrauction.com/browse_gallery.cfm?category=120">RR Auction COA</a>

  • Rare Civil War Photographs Revealed

    Unsigned original 2.5 x 3.75 carte-de-visite three-quarter length portrait of Beauregard, by Rockwood of New York. Some light silvering to dark areas of the image and a trimmed bottom edge, otherwise fine condition. <a href="http://www.rrauction.com/browse_gallery.cfm?category=120">RR Auction COA</a>

  • Rare Civil War Photographs Revealed

    Union general (1816–1894) who led forces at Shenandoah, Red River, and elsewhere. Prior to the Civil War, he served as governor of Massachusetts and speaker of the US House of Representatives. Civil War-dated original 2.5 x 4.25 carte-de-visite bust portrait of Banks in uniform, by Warren of Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, signed at the bottom in black ink, “N. P. Banks, 4th Nov: 1864.” In fine condition, with a subtle central block of toning and mild silvering to dark areas of the image. Pre-certified PSA/DNA and <a href="http://www.rrauction.com/browse_gallery.cfm?category=120">RR Auction COA</a>.

  • Rare Civil War Photographs Revealed

    Confederate general (1835–1894) who commanded the Cavalry Corps of the Army of Tennessee. Original 4.25 x 6.5 cabinet photo by J. W. Blyth of Montgomery, Alabama, signed at the bottom in black ink, “Faithfully yours, Wm. W. Allen, Maj. Gen’l C.S.A.” Scattered surface marks and soiling, and a noticeable tack hole to the top and two tiny ones to the lower corners, otherwise fine condition. <a href="http://www.rrauction.com/browse_gallery.cfm?category=120">RR Auction COA</a>

  • Rare Civil War Photographs Revealed

    Union general (1805–1871) who commanded three United States forts: Castle Pinckney, Fort Moultrie, and Fort Sumter. In the face of South Carolina’s imminent secession, Anderson refused a formal demand for his surrender and in the early morning hours of April 12, 1861, Fort Sumter was bombarded, and the Civil War began. Original 2.25 x 4 carte-de-visite bust portrait of Anderson in uniform, by Fontayne of New York, signed at the bottom of the image in black ink, “Robert Anderson, Br. Gen. U.S.A.” In fine condition, with a slight bend to the top and a trivial mark to the lower border. Pre-certified PSA/DNA and <a href="http://www.rrauction.com/browse_gallery.cfm?category=120">RR Auction COA</a>.