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    The Washington arsenal explosion

    The Washington arsenal explosion

    Photo By Rachel Larue | Ed Bearrs, American Civil War historian, gives remarks June 17 during a ceremony to...... read more read more



    Story by Julia LeDoux 

    Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall

    WASHINGTON - It was hot the morning of June 17, 1864, as 21 young female war-workers made their way to the choking room of the laboratory building on what was then known as Washington Arsenal but is today Fort McNair.

    Wearing high collars and hooped skirts and sitting together at long benches pulled up to a central table, the women sweltered as they inserted lead bullets into powder-filled cylinders to form small arms cartridges for the Union Army.

    Then the unimaginable happened. The extreme heat of the day caused the drying explosives to combust. The sparks ignited the gunpowder that was lying on the table and a series of explosions rocked the room, instantly filling it with fire and smoke.

    Seven volunteer fire department companies battled the fire, but could not save all those inside the building and the tragedy sent shock waves through the nation’s capital. President Abraham Lincoln learned of the explosion upon his return to the White House from Philadelphia and would join Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who immediately took steps to ensure the funeral expenses would be covered, in attending the memorial for the victims two days later on June 19. The women were buried in Congressional Cemetery and a monument in their honor, called “Ladies in Waiting,” was placed there in their honor in 1867.

    Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall commemorated the service and sacrifice of those who lost their lives with a solemn ceremony 150 years to the day and hour of the explosion.

    “The Washington Arsenal explosion killed 21 young women as they went about their duties, working hard, as women often do, to provide for their families,” said JBM-HH Commander Col. Fern O. Sumpter, who called the deaths of so many young women, “a tragedy that caused devastation almost too difficult to bear for the residents of this grief-stricken region.

    “These mothers, daughters, sisters and wives were holding down their households while the men were off fighting in the war,” continued Sumpter, who hosted the commemoration. “They epitomized what makes up the fabric of our nation.”

    Noted Civil War historian, author and World War II Marine veteran Ed Bearss painted a vivid scene of the explosion for those in the audience.

    “A number of women will leap out of windows to escape,” he said. “Some of them will be injured. The ones who do not get out of the building will face a terrible death. The building will be consumed in fire. The fire will be put out, and then came the horrible experience of removing the dead and injured from the building.”

    The ceremony paused at exactly 11:50 a.m., the time of the first explosion. The names of those killed — Melissa Adams, Annie Bache, Emma Baird, Lizzie Brahler, Bettie Branagan, Kate Brosnaham, Mary Burroughs, Emily Collins, Johanna Connors, Bridget Dunn, Susan Harris, Margaret Horan, Rebecca Hull, Eliza Lacey, Louisa Lloyd, Sallie McElfresh, Julia McEwen, Ellen Roche, Pinkey Scott, W.E. Tippet and Margaret Yonson – were read followed by the ringing of a bell.

    At the conclusion of the ceremony, Sumpter presented Michael Fritsch, a relative of Kate Brosnaham’s, with a commander’s coin. Sumpter also recognized Erin Voorhies, whose late father, Brian Bergin, recognized the need to research the explosion and authored “The Washington Arsenal Explosion: Civil War Disaster in the Capital.”



    Date Taken: 06.17.2014
    Date Posted: 06.20.2014 15:15
    Story ID: 133869
    Location: FORT LESLEY J. MCNAIR, DC, US 

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