On June 17, 1864, at the Washington Arsenal a staff of young Irish immigrant girls was busy crimping lead balls into shells of gunpowder for small arms use by the Union Army in the Civil War. Just before noon, some shells placed outside a window to dry in the sun exploded throwing sparks through the open window into the arsenal’s east room.
According to the Washington Star, Friday, June 17, 1864: A terrible catastrophe occurred at the Arsenal which has cast a gloom over the whole community. While 108 girls were at work in the main laboratory making cartridges for small arms, a quantity of exploding shells were laid out just outside the window to dry in the sun. . . the extreme heat of the sun exploded them, and one flew into the room in which were seated about 29 young women and caused an instantaneous explosion. . . Those girls employed in the other rooms escaped by jumping from the windows and running through the doors; those in the room fronting on the east were nearly all killed by the explosion or burnt to death. The building immediately caught fire and was completely destroyed. When our reporter left the scene of this disaster 19 bodies had been taken from the ruins, but they were so completely burnt to a crisp that recognition was impossible.
Relatives and friends rushed to and fro seeking loved ones, while firemen removed charred remains. Many, who jumped from the windows, ran off making it difficult to tell who perished and who had escaped. No trace was found of three boys who were feared totally consumed in the flames. Several fire companies, including the Government steam engine Hibernia, arrived and prevented the flames from spreading to the nearby barge magazine where several tons of powder was kept.
On the grounds of the Arsenal, the charred remains were laid out; in nearly every case only the trunk of the body remained, the arms and legs were burned or blown away. The lower halves of a number of bodies were burned to a cinder since they were caged, as it were, in the wire of their hooped skirts and the expansion of the dress by the hoops afforded space for the flames to flare up with fatal effect. One box contained a large number of feet, hands, arms and legs impossible to identify. Maj. Benton, commandant of the Arsenal, noted that in crimping the cartridges, the ball end was pointed towards the body and at the time of the explosion each girl had nearly 500 cartridges before her — the balls all pointing towards her. Many of the girls were shot where they sat and never got out of their chairs. The next morning Major Benton received an official order which read:
>War Department, June 19, 1864
Major Benton, U.S. Arsenal
The funeral and all the expenses incident to the internment of the sufferers by the recent catastrophe at the Arsenal will be paid by the Department. You will not spare any means to express the respect and sympathy of the Government for the deceased and their surviving friends.
Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War
At the funeral on Sunday, huge crowds assembled at the Arsenal – numbering several thousand; some were injured in the crush. The remains were enclosed in handsome coffins on a platform trimmed with mourning bunting. Over this was a canopy, draped with the American flag. Rev. Father A. Bokel, of St. Dominick’s church, commenced a ceremony followed by Methodist Episcopal Rev. S.V. Leech, of Gorsuch Chapel. After the prayers, police opened a passage through the crowd and the hearses were processed out the gate at 4 PM followed by a carriage containing the chief mourners — President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton.. They were followed by Officers of the Arsenal, relatives and friends of the deceased, Arsenal employees, about 150 taxis and other vehicles, a large number on horseback and pedestrians. The procession, several miles in length, moved up Pennsylvania Avenue and at F street was joined by the funeral procession of 12-year-old Miss McElfresh, who had been removed earlier.
The streets were crowded along the two miles to the cemetery as were the windows and rooftops along the way. The bell of the Columbia Fire Co. tolled during the passage of the procession, as did the bell of St. Dominick’s Church. As it proceeded towards the cemetery, hundreds ran ahead to get a convenient place from which to view the ceremonies at the cemetery, but were disappointed for the ground had been occupied by those who had arrived hours earlier.
The coffins were carried to the graves – two large pits, each 6 feet long by 15 feet wide and the 14 young girls who had no relatives in America were placed – eight bodies in one and six in the other. The remaining victims were buried in nearby family plots or in Mt. Olivet cemetery. The crowd slowly departed after a Benediction and the greatest outpouring of public sympathy in the history of Washington, D.C. At the time, it was expected that the memory of that tragedy would live forever. However, less than a year later President Lincoln was assassinated and the public outpouring of grief at that tragedy muffled the memory of the Arsenal calamity, although a monument was erected on the first anniversary by public subscription which had started earlier. However, after Lincoln’s assassination, an official year of mourning was declared and the monument to the Arsenal girls was never officially dedicated.
The monument is a 17-foot column bearing the names of the 21 who died and topped by a figure of a woman with head hung and hands folded, entitled ‘Grief’. At a total of 25-feet in height, it is the tallest monument in the cemetery. It was created by Irish architect, Lot Flannery, who also created the gates at Arlington Cemetery. The monument, indeed the tragedy itself, has faded from public memory, but not that of the Congressional Cemetery staff and dedicated volunteers like the Sons of Union Veterans who continued to care and must be congratulated. A rose garden was planted before the memorial with three appropriate bushes – a red rose called Mr. Lincoln, a yellow rose called Irish Hope and a pink rose called Souvenir de la Malmaison, a hybrid developed in 1843 at about the time most of the victims were born.Our discovery of this story resulted from the review of the fascinating history of the cemetery and those who sleep there, which is one of Washington’s hidden historic gems. This historian thinks it would be highly appropriate if the AOH and/or LAOH would consider an annual memorial on or near June 17, the date of the disaster and particularly in 2014 which would be the 150th anniversary of their internment. Perhaps, in conjunction with the Congressional Cemetery, the memorial can finally be formally dedicated to the memory of those almost forgotten Irish immigrant girls.