Posted by: daviemacdonald | September 18, 2012

On this day Sept 17 1862 they fell to eternal rest “Unsung heroines of the Civil War”

On this day Sept 17 1862 they fell to eternal rest “Unsung  Women of the American Civil War”

“Dedicated to the Heroines of the Civil War.” On this day in 1862 75 workers die in explosion at Allegheny Arsenal, Pittsburgh

The unsung heroines of the Civil War, women of a fatal Magazine explosion which shook the city on the afternoon of September 17, 1862, when almost a hundred lost their lives in the Allegheny Arsenal, are at last to be recognised. It was not unusual for children to be employed in munition work. As early as 1812, Colonel of Artillery Decius Wadsworth had written to the Secretary of War, “In the making of musket cartridges, children of 10 12 or 14  years of age can be employed as usefully or even more so than men.” Hired for their small hands and dexterity, children, willingly went to work in the Allegheny Arsenal.

Lawrenceville Armory

The arsenal and Fort had become important to the community socially in the village of Lawrenceville with locals working in the arsenal itself or by supplying the men stationed there with goods and services.   Charles Dickens was a visitor on his 1842 American tour and when visiting Pittsburgh and described the post as a “pretty” Arsenal.

Charles Dickens

With the outbreak of civil war the arsenal rose to high prominence. The manufacture of arms and munitions increased, as did the number of Women boys and girls employed in the manufacturing process. Twelve hundred civilian employees were hired by the War Department to work in the Allegheny Arsenal. The citizens of Lawrenceville and the Arsenal became a natural target for the Confederate Army

It was an uneventful morning. Work proceeded as usual.

In the cartridge room “bundlers” rolled squares of paper into tubes and then tied one end closed with yellow cord. The tube was then filled with a minie ball and gunpowder.

After the cartridges were filled, “pinchers” pinched or folded the open end closed. Arsenal employees were able to roll 1, 500, 000 cartridges every other day. At this moment, cartridges rolled by the women and children of Pittsburgh.

One hundred-eighty-six civilians, one hundred-fifty-six women AND girls and thirty men AND boys, worked here  rolling .54 and .71 calibre cartridges and filling 10-pounder and 12-pounder cannon shells

Off to Work as usual

Catherine Burkhart’s school days were behind her, assuming she had any schooling at all. At perhaps 15, she was a full-fledged member of the wartime work force. On the morning of Sept. 17, 1862, Catherine left the log house that she shared with her mother and set off for work at the Allegheny Arsenal. It was the best day of the month. PAYDAY.

Arriving at work

Another young girl Mary Murphy hung her bonnet and shawl in the tiring room (change room). The arsenal provided young women, not only a chance to serve their country, but economic independence as well. In an era with few employment opportunities for women, a position at the arsenal meant steady, respectable work. As a cartridge roller Mary Murphey made seventy-five cents a day, thirty cents less than men who did in the work. She drew fifteen dollars a month pay, two dollars more than a Federal private received.

A Song along the way

Also early in the day 18 year old  Agnes Davison told her minister, the Reverend Richard Lea, “that she was for the Union and that she would no longer be a secessionist from the government of God.” Agnes and her older sister, Mary, left home that morning for work in the arsenal. As they walked through the streets of Lawrenceville, Mary sang a hymn that the sisters had sung in Sunday School the previous Sunday

High in yonder realms of light Dwell the raptured saints above;

Far beyond our feeble sight,

Happy in Emmanuel’s love. .

But these days of weeping o’er,

Past this scene of toil and pain,

They shall feel distress no more,

Never, never weep again. .

Every tear is wiped away,

Sighs no more will heave the breast;

Night is lost in endless day,

Sorrow, in eternal rest.

On September 17, 1862, at around 2 in the afternoon  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.

There were then 3 rapid explosions.

People  crowded into the streets after the blasts to see  dense columns of black smoke that rose from the burning buildings .The people of Lawrenceville were the first to reach the arsenal. The men of the village joined the Arsenal workers in fighting the fire.

Lawrenceville’s new fire engine, which had arrived from its manufacturers only five days before, was pulled by hand through the streets of Lawrenceville to fight its first fire.

The men fought desperately to put out the fire and rescue victims from the inferno. Their work was made more hazardous by the 125, 000 cartridges and 175 rounds of field ammunition, (the day’s production) which continued to explode for hours as the Arsenal buildings burned.

Lawrenceville Fire House

For  two days family members visited the Arsenal trying to identify the dead. It was difficult as many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition. One woman was identified by her false teeth; another by a piece of dress that remained un scorched. In many cases there were no bodies. Several victims had been torn apart by the explosions and body parts were found throughout the arsenal grounds.

One young girl’s finger, all that was found of her, was identified by her ring. A foot found outside the gate was recognized by its shoe. It was even harder to give names to those who were trapped inside. The fire was so hot that everything burned, and all that the rescuers found of the women were piles of white ash surrounded by the steel wire of the hoops they had been wearing.

In some parts, where the heat was intense, nothing but the whitened bones, could be seen, while in other places large masses of blackened flesh were visible amidst the smoke. The firemen reached the ground at an early hour, and rendered valuable assistance in putting out the flames and removing the dead bodies. The building was one story high, was built in two apartments, divided into halls and rooms, with an open space in the centre, like a court. These rooms were numbered from 1 to 15, but only 8 of them were occupied by the employees. In these 8 rooms the number employed was  as follows:

No. 1…………26 girls. No. 13………..30 girls.

No. 3…………22 girls. No. 14…………24 girls.

No. 4…………26 girls. No. 7………….25 boys.

No. 5…………10 girls.

No. 12…………13 girls.


Lawrenceville Volunteer Fire fighting today

51 YEARS LATER in 1913 A  memorial was finally erected

On the inscription it is written

Tread softly, this is consecrated dust,

forty-five pure patriotic victims lie here.

A sacrifice to freedom and civil liberty,

a horrid memento of a most wicked rebellion.


these are patriots’ graves,

friends of humble, honest toil, these were your peers.

Fervent affection kindled these hearts,

honest industry employed these hands,

widows’ and orphans’ tears have watered the ground.

Female beauty and manhood’s vigour commingle here.

Identified by man, known by Him who is the resurrection and the life,

to be made known and loved again

when the morning cometh..

The causes of the explosion was never known and there were many suspicions of this and that. What we do know they were all Working class Heroes Heroines.

Every last Woman and Child.

*as far as I have been able to ascertain only 3 men were killed in the blast.

Blues Concert Lawrenceville today



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