Home / General / This Day in Labor History: June 17, 1864

This Day in Labor History: June 17, 1864


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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  • Bruce Vail

    The women and girls killed were mostly Irish and the Washington Arsenal Fire is a commonly cited example of the gross exploitation of Irish workers in Civil War era.


  • Peterr

    Making this an even uglier story is that it was not the first to claim the lives of women and girls in the Civil War. The 1864 New York Times article on this explosion includes this nugget in the second paragraph:

    By a strange coincidence, just before the explosion occurred, a letter was read to these girls acknowledging the receipt of $170 contributed by them for the erection of a monument to the victims of an almost similar catastrophe at Pittsburgh last year.

    That Pittsburgh explosion of the Allegheny Arsenal was even more egregiously the responsibility of the management, per the “Civil War Women” blog:

    When Colonel John Symington was appointed Commander of the Arsenal, he had a macadamized road built between the laboratory and other buildings. This type of road contained pieces of hard, flinty stone, and the workers warned management about the potential for an explosion if any of the powder came in contact with the new road.

    Alexander McBride – Superintendent of the Laboratory – had wood chips and sawdust spread over the stone road to help prevent sparks, but Symington insisted that it all be swept away. When asked to give the employees a half-holiday on a Saturday so they could get rid of the powder that had accumulated over time, Symington refused. McBride also complained that E.I. DuPont insisted on recycling its wooden powder barrels, which led to loose-fitting lids and spilled powder.

    The Explosions
    Around 2pm, Joseph Frick was delivering wooden barrels of DuPont black powder in a horse-drawn wagon up the new stone road. Rachel Dunlap, an employee in the lab watched as Frick maneuvered his wagon into position to offload the barrels. Just then she saw a spark flash near the horse’s hooves (with iron horseshoes) and the iron-clad wagon wheels. Then she saw a sheet of flame. All it took was one tiny spark.

    Like the Washington Arsenal fire, however, accountability was . . . lacking:

    A coroner’s inquest began immediately that evening, and eventually determined that a spark from the combustion of either an iron horseshoe or iron-rimmed wagon wheel was ignited when the metal contacted black powder that had been swept onto the macadamized road in front of the laboratory building. The spark then traveled to the porch and into the building, setting off powder as it went.

    A coroner’s jury stated that the accident had been the result of the negligent conduct of Colonel John Symington and his subordinates in allowing loose powder to accumulate on the roadway and elsewhere. However, during a subsequent military inquiry into the conduct of Symington, many of the same witnesses who had appeared before the coroner changed their testimony.

    In the end, Symington was found innocent of any wrongdoing by the Union Army, and the court concluded that “the cause of the explosion could not be satisfactorily ascertained…” Symington, in a letter to the Ordnance Department two days after the explosion, speculated that it had been caused “by the leaking out of powder when one of the barrels was being placed on the platform.”

    • wjts

      The Allegheny Arsenal site is a couple of blocks from my house. Almost all the original buildings are gone, replaced by a park and a school. Recently, construction works on another part of the site unearthed a bunch of old cannonballs, prompting a visit from historical archaeologists and the bomb squad.

    • Schadenboner

      Sounds like Symington might have been, um, squishy on the whole “Lawfully Constituted State vs. Treason-in-defense-of-the-Slave-Power” issue:

      Rumors also circulated that Major Symington, the commandant of the arsenal, harbored Confederate sympathies. These fears held some merit. Symington’s own son joined the Confederate forces and his daughter married Confederate General William Boggs.


  • DrDick

    Ah yes, what the Republicans call the Golden Age of Industrial relations, which they are eager to return to.

    • Lot_49

      None of those job-killing government regulations. Just worker-killing employer negligence. Those were the days!

    • Peterr

      And yesterday they took another step:

      The Justice Department said Friday it will reverse its stance on a Supreme Court case, in which the department previously favored workers over management.

      The Obama administration had thrown its weight behind the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in the case, NLRB v. Murphy Oil, but now is weighing in on the side of Murphy Oil.

      The case seeks to answer whether an employee agreement that makes employees wave their right to bring a class action lawsuit against their employer goes against the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

      No one could have anticipated . . .

  • The magnificent Millau Viaduct over the Tarn in southern France, for a while the holder of the record for the world’s tallest bridge, was built by Eiffage with zero worker deaths.

    • BiloSagdiyev

      And how many more tax dollars did THAT cost?! (shake fist)

  • Hondo

    Well we see obviously that nothing has changed to this day as far as holding employers accountable for workplace accidents that result in deaths. The Upper Big Branch mine is a prime example.

    • Linnaeus

      Eggs, omelets, whadduyagonnado?

  • Steve LaBonne

    I know you don’t get a lot of comments on these posts, but that’s because there’s not much to say except “thank you”. So, thank you!

  • One of my ancestors worked at the Allegheny Arsenal. I’m not sure if he was there when it exploded.

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