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This Day in Labor History: June 17, 1864

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On June 17, 1864, the Washington Arsenal exploded in Washington, D.C, killing around 20 workers. This tragic event highlighted the growing dangers of the American workplace and the indifference to workplace safety that proved deadly again and again in Civil War munitions factories.

Even before the Civil War, workplace safety in the American workplace was shockingly nonexistent. In a society where untimely death was pretty common, the nation largely gave a collective shrug to workplace deaths. This is how courts could rule that employers had no responsibility for workplace safety or over 1000 workers could die building the Erie Canal without causing a crisis of any kind.

During the Civil War, the industrialization of the United States grew rapidly, setting the stage for the coming Gilded Age and preparing for the growth in the American economy over the next several decades. But the Civil War certainly did not lead to any special preparations for workplace safety. In fact, the Civil War was pretty bad for northern workers. They faced rapidly rising inflation far outpacing wages, long workdays, and military intervention against early attempts to strike, particularly in factories involved in production for the war. The tiny American union movement would grow significantly during war, laying the groundwork for the resistance to capitalism that would become so striking during the 1870s.

For obvious reasons, a big growth area in the economy during the Civil War was in weapons production. With the growing wartime economy, new opportunities for women’s work arose, but these were not really opportunities so much as they were desperate choices made for sheer survival. Many of these women were working a hard, dangerous job because their husbands were among the Civil War wounded or dead. The wages were OK for average women’s wages at the time–$50-60 a month–but with inflation skyrocketing, the real wages declined over time. Those wages were also only half as much as men made. The combined average costs of rent and food was about $50 a month, forcing women to live together to save money. Young girls made up a large percentage of the workforce at armories, often Irish girls without other options except prostitution.

At the Washington Arsenal, which is now Fort McNair, near Nationals Park in Washington, dozens of women labored filling cartridges with gunpowder in what was called the choking room. They were not allowed to talk so they could focus on placing precisely 50 grams of gunpowder in each cartridge. This was dangerous labor. In 1862, an explosion at a Pittsburgh arsenal killed 78 workers. It was June in Washington so it was hot and crowded, the women wearing the heavy clothing of the era. Unbelievably, these very workers at the Washington Arsenal had just sent a $170 contribution to raise a monument for the victims in Pittsburgh just before they would die themselves.

June 17 was a particularly hot day. The arsenal made a variety of ammunition for heavy artillery, muskets, carbines, handguns, and other weaponry. It also made fireworks. With July 4 coming up, the arsenal was preparing its supply of fireworks. The superintendent, Thomas Brown, was known as a “pyrotechnist” with 20 years of experience making fireworks. He laid out some star flares to dry near the workers. They had a practical use too, as they could be used to illuminate Confederate positions, but these were to be used for the Independence Day celebrations. This was a bad idea. There were a lot of stars and he set them very close together. Around noon, something set off the flares. Probably it was because the intense heat and the sun shining on them sparked them. They started to explode near the gunpowder.

The Arsenal actually had written safety regulations. It said that there should not be more gunpowder in the choking room than necessary. As per usual in these years, no one paid attention to this. The choking room exploded thanks to all the gunpowder laying around. Some workers escaped. Those on the opposite side of the building jumped out of a second floor window and survived. But somewhere around 20 workers died that day. It was never clear given how poorly employers even kept track of their employees during these years. A few died immediately, some survived for a short time. Eight were burned beyond recognition. About twelve were sent to the hospital on site that was already filled with the wounded from the Wilderness and Cold Harbor. Yet this could have been far worse. Had the fire spread to the magazines, the explosion and death toll would have been epic. As it was, it took an hour to put out the fire, which was helped by being right on the Potomac River.

That these women had to wear hoop skirts on the job in order to ensure the modesty of the women workers made the disaster worse. Not only were they heavy and made it hard to move but because the fabric was held in place, it made them quite flammable. The youngest girl who died was a 12-year old girl named Sally McElfresh. The event touched many who felt these women sacrificed for the nation. Abraham Lincoln attended the funeral. So did Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. There was a long funeral procession attended by thousands.

Typical of the period, Superintendent Brown faced no consequences. There was a coroner’s jury that rebuked him for his carelessness, but that was about it. After all, it was not against the law to commit extreme negligence when it came to workers’ lives. Workers died all the time from employers’ indifference, whether accidental or not. They faced no legal consequence. The surviving families received small amounts of compensation. A statue was erected to honor the dead.

Another explosion took place at the Washington Arsenal in 1865. At least eight men died that day. Nothing seems to have changed after that event either. The Confederacy also suffered arsenal explosions in Richmond and Augusta, killing a number of women and children in both.

The image at the top of this post is a picture of the women working at the Arsenal. Many of them died that day.

This is the 229th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

…. I happen to be in Washington for a conference. So I wandered out to the Arsenal explosion monument to pay my respects.

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