The late summer sun shone brightly on the two armies battling along Antietam Creek on September 17,1862,the bloodiest day of fighting in the Civil War. Some 175 miles to the west near Pittsburgh, the sun also shone on the Allegheny Arsenal—where that afternoon a laboratory would explode in the deadliest civilian disaster of the war.The explosions would kill 78 workers—mostly women and teenage girls—and focus intense scrutiny on the arsenal commander,Colonel John Symington.
When Symington arrived at the arsenal as an Army major in 1857, he found the 38-acre facility,containing a number of Greek Revival buildings and a 200-man work force,engaged in the manufacture of gun carriages, leather goods and the loading of cartridges, shells and grapeshot.
On December 23,1860,when orders were received from Secretary of War John Floyd to transfer 124 cannons from the arsenal to the South for two forts under construction, Symington had no recourse except to obey the orders of his superior. When the people of Pittsburgh learned of it,however,they launched one of the biggest protests in the city’s history.The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette of December 25, 1860, declared,“The traitors of the South are thus being furnished by a government in league with them with all the ammunitions of war.”The personal intervention of President James Buchanan led to the countermanding of the controversial order and the resignation of the secretary of war.
Since Symington’s wife was from Maryland,many Pittsburghers thought that Symington might have Southern sympathies. Those suspicions were not allayed when his son ran off to join the Confederate Army and his daughter appeared in church one Sunday wearing a Confederate rosette.Fortunately for Symington, Pittsburgh residents were unaware that he had signed a letter of recommendation to help obtain a West Point appointment for one of his wife’s relatives, George Pickett, who by early 1862 was a Confederate general.
With the outbreak of the Civil War,the arsenal work force was increased to more than 1,100 to maintain wartime production. In October 1861,Symington found himself again being thrashed by Pittsburgh newspapers after he fired 200 boys for playing with matches around bundles of cartridges scheduled for shipment.Although the commander had given repeated warnings, the Daily Pittsburgh Gazette of October 3,1861, declared his actions were “a wanton display of arbitrary power.”
The previous day,Symington had written to Brig. Gen. James W. Ripley, chief of ordnance in Washington, D.C.,explaining the necessity of his action—“that the offender did not belong to the room,is thus evident and I have discharged all the boys at work in that portion of the laboratory, and will supply their places with females. This must produce some delay but I am assured from the number of applicants for that kind of work, it will only continue for two or three days while they are acquiring the requisite skill.”
On at least three occasions Symington found himself defending the Allegheny Arsenal from charges that it was providing inferior products to the war front. One involved a letter contending that the arsenal had failed to provide the Army’s Department of the Ohio with proper articles for field carriages.In a response on June 12, 1861,Symington chided the letter’s author, Captain Charles P. Kingsbury, and argued that the equipment matched the requisition and was in accordance with the Ordnance Department manual.Symington added:“In conclusion Captain Kingsbury permit me to remark that a more courteous style of writing on your part would be more acceptable.The tone of your letter is rather that of demanding explanations from one found to account to you than the usual official address amongst officers.”
When Lt. Col. G.D. Ramsay, commander of the Washington Arsenal, complained that the ball of the Enfield cartridge received from Pittsburgh was too large, Symington responded,“For the Enfield rifle a sample gun of inferior quality, was sent here from the State of Ohio, by which to make the cartridge.”
The greatest crisis that Symington faced took place on September 17, 1862. It was a warm, sunny day in Pittsburgh, and the workers were excited because it was payday. That sense of tranquility ended at 2 p.m., when the first of three explosions ripped through one of the laboratories where women and teenage girls were loading paper cartridges with gunpowder, tying bullets to the cartridges and packing them in crates.
The explosion was so powerful and fierce that it could be heard three miles away in Pittsburgh. Everyone immediately knew what had happened, and one volunteer fire department was dispatched from the heart of the city to the borough of Lawrenceville, where the arsenal was located.
As the Daily Post declared,“Our community was shocked yesterday afternoon by what we believed to be exaggerated reports of the most terrible calamity which has ever befallen our city,viz…the blowing up of the laboratory at the United States Arsenal in Lawrenceville, in which all of the filling of cartridges,shells,canisters,grape,etc.,is done, and the consequent loss of at least 75 lives, principally of girls employed in the building.”The dead numbered 71 women and teenage girls, and seven men.
The newspaper praised the expediency of the firefighting forces and reported that “of the main building nothing remained but a heap of smoldering debris.”As a result of the explosion the ground was strewn with charred wood,torn clothing,grapeshot,exploded shells, fragments of dinner baskets, steel springs from girls’ hoop skirts, and melted lead.
The journal spared no description of the scene and reported that as far away as 200 feet from the laboratory laborers picked up the terribly mangled body of a girl.Another body had reportedly flown up in the air and separated into several parts. An arm was thrown over the wall, a foot was picked up at the gate,a partial skull was found 100 yards away and intestines were scattered about the ground. Many victims were seen fleeing from the ruins covered with flames or lacerations. It was also reported that a number of the injured were taken to homes in the borough or to the city,where four or five victims later died. Reporters wrote: “Never have we seen such an appalling spectacle.Bodies,charred and swollen,were scattered here and there.”The next day, many of the bodies were buried in a common grave in Allegheny Cemetery, while the Catholic victims were buried in adjoining Saint Mary’s Cemetery.
Even though Symington and his officers were not subject to a civilian investigation, he volunteered his support when a coroner’s inquest was impaneled to investigate the cause of the disaster. Symington was livid after several days of testimony when the jury was split on the verdict of negligence.The prevailing view was that a horseshoe had struck a spark that ignited loose gunpowder outside the laboratory.The majority of the jury resolved that they regarded the accumulation of vast quantities of explosives in and near the magazine buildings as a public peril. Furthermore, most jurors believed the explosion was caused by neglect on the part of Symington and Lieutenants J.R. Edie and Jasper Myers,and the gross neglect of Alexander McBride,superintendent of the laboratory building,and his assistant,James Thorp.
The government was eager to put the tragedy at the Federal arsenal behind it and move ahead with war production. Charred timbers were removed within a few days and tossed into the Allegheny River.
Symington,who did not feel that he received just treatment at the coroner’s inquest, called for a military investigation into the explosion.The military inquest was held in October 1862,and after extensive examination and testimony,the board ruled that Symington had not acted improperly and that no blame for the disaster could be laid upon him,and that no one cause could be deter mined as the sole reason. It is interesting to note that at both the coroner’s inquest and the military investigation, both Symington and McBride declared that the Dupont Company was recycling the gunpowder barrels, which they said was a problem because the barrel lids never fit properly after they were pried open.However, there was no further investigation into this aspect, and one could speculate that this may have been due to the fact that Dupont was the largest supplier of gunpowder to the Union.
The real reason for the disastrous explosion will never be known,and it would be unfair to blame Dupont when other unanswered questions remain. One question involved a workman who had unloaded 10 barrels of gunpowder from a mule cart outside the laboratory. The worker was seen stepping over one of the barrels just before the first explosion. Other unanswered questions asked whether the work rules had been strictly enforced, and whether the workers might have been negligent in handling the explosives.
Symington, in some respects, became a victim of the disaster. From November 1, 1862, until his retirement on June 1, 1863, he was placed on sick leave.Afterward he retired to his daughter’s farm in Hartford County, Md., where he died on April 4, 1864. John Symington, who had served his country for nearly half a century,died a forgotten man.
It was not until May 27, 1928, that the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War and its Ladies Auxiliary dedicated a new monument in Allegheny Cemetery in honor of those killed in the disaster of 1862. The new monument plot bore 78 names, some 40 more than on the original obelisk erected in 1863.Two years of research through records and among friends,relatives and survivors enabled the committee to include the additional names.
The inscription on the monument is a reminder that the explosion victims were patriots and often just teenage children: “Fervent affection kindled these hearts, honest industry employed these hands, widows and orphans tears have watered this ground.Female beauty and manhood’s vigor 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.”
In 1972, while excavating a foundation in an old neighborhood in what had been arsenal grounds near the Allegheny River,workmen unearthed 1,200 Civil War–era grapeshot projectiles. Police and military officials removed these relics and transported them to Indiantown Gap Military Reservation for demolition.The discovery reawakened interest in the arsenal for a short period.
At the height of its operation, the arsenal included about 20 buildings,but little remains today.Two arsenal warehouses are used as garages by the Allegheny County Health Department.Another building now serves as a trucking company office.The site of the explosions is a ball field at Arsenal Park behind Arsenal Middle School.The arsenal’s gunpowder magazine, where a wall plaque commemorates those lost in the 1862 disaster, is now a park restroom.
Originally published in the May 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.