Rosie the Riveter and the Bloodiest Day in American Military History

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2013-2014, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the April 2014 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

During World War II many American women worked in factories to produce materiel for the war effort. These women were personified in the image of a female factory worker that came to be known as Rosie the Riveter. Similarly, numerous women worked in munitions factories during the Civil War, in both the North and the South, and represent Civil War era Rosie the Riveters. Some of the North’s Rosie the Riveters suffered a ghastly tragedy in the explosion at the Allegheny Arsenal in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, which was a village at that time, but is now part of the city of Pittsburgh. The Allegheny Arsenal explosion occurred on September 17, 1862, the same day as the Battle of Antietam.

A drawing from the July 20, 1861 Harper’s Weekly showing women working in a munitions factory

Construction of the Allegheny Arsenal began in 1814. The site, which is on the banks of the Allegheny River northeast of downtown Pittsburgh, was selected by William Barclay Foster, the father of composer Stephen Foster. The location of the arsenal was chosen to make it accessible to easy shipping of its products westward into the expanding U.S., and also because the land on which the arsenal was built was owned by William Barclay Foster, which means that he made a tidy profit from the sale of the land to the U.S. government. Prior to the Civil War, the arsenal had been visited by a number of dignitaries, including President James Monroe, the Marquis de Lafayette, Charles Dickens, and former President John Quincy Adams.

John Symington

The commander of the arsenal at the outbreak of the Civil War was Colonel John Symington, which was a matter of controversy. For various reasons Symington’s sympathies were not clear. One of his sons fought for the Confederacy, one of his daughters appeared in church one Sunday wearing a Confederate rosette, and, worst of all, shortly after South Carolina seceded, Secretary of War John Floyd, whose Southern sympathies were well known, ordered Symington to ship cannon and small arms to New Orleans, and Symington attempted to comply with this order. However, intense pressure from Union-loyal residents of the area caused the War Department to cancel the shipments. In spite of all this, Symington continued to serve as commander of the arsenal.

A drawing of the Allegheny Arsenal

The Allegheny Arsenal operated extremely well and without incident for the first 17 months of the war. The facility included several buildings, one of which was used to store barrels of gunpowder that were transported by horse-drawn wagon to other buildings as needed. At around 1:00 p.m. on the day of the explosion (or about the time that Ambrose Burnside’s men finally took the bridge over Antietam Creek), Joseph Frick was delivering ten barrels of gunpowder to the ammunition building, in which small arms cartridges and other munitions were made. The roadway that Frick used was a newly constructed one made of stone. After Frick delivered the gunpowder onto one of the building’s porches, Robert Smith, who was assisting Frick, asked him to carry away some empty wooden boxes. According to witnesses, while Frick was maneuvering the wagon toward the porch, there was a spark from either a horseshoe of the wagon’s horse or the iron rim of a wagon wheel. The spark was caused by the extreme dryness of that summer combined with the use of stone for the roadway. The results were catastrophic.

The spark ignited loose gunpowder that was lying on the roadway, and three separate explosions over the course of several minutes destroyed the ammunition building. Frick was thrown 200 yards from his wagon, Smith was blown to bits, and the remains of the building became an inferno. After the first explosion, Alexander McBride, the civilian foreman of the ammunition building, jumped out his office window and watched as the roof of the building collapsed onto rooms that included the one in which his 13-year-old daughter, Kate, was working. Mary Jane Black, who worked in the ammunition building, was on her way there after receiving her pay when she heard screaming. She turned toward the screams and saw “two girls behind me. They were on fire; their faces were burning and blood running from them. I pulled the clothes off one of them. While I was doing this, the other ran up and begged me to cover her. I did not succeed in saving either one.” Joseph Bollman, one of the men who worked at the facility, ran out of the building with a young girl in his arms. After laying her safely outside, he rushed back into the building to find his daughter, Mary, but he never returned and both of them perished.

After the fire was extinguished, bodies, many unrecognizable, were pulled from the debris and laid on wooden planks on the ground. According to a gruesome account in one newspaper, “In some places bodies lay in heaps, and burnt as rapidly as pine wood. In other places nothing could be seen but the whitened and consuming bones, the intensity of the heat having consumed every particle of flesh. The steel bands remaining from the hoop skirts of the unfortunate girls marked the place where many of them had perished.” In all 78 people died, 70 of them women and girls. Many of the unidentified dead were buried in a mass grave in Allegheny Cemetery. About a thousand local residents sent a request to Congress that funds be appropriated for the victims and their families. The request was denied.

Marker indicating the location of the Allegheny Arsenal

A civilian coroner’s inquiry into the explosion laid blame primarily on foreman Alexander McBride and arsenal commander John Symington for failure to enforce proper safety procedures. Symington disputed the ruling and felt that it was biased because of rumors that he was a Confederate sympathizer. He requested a military court of inquiry, which concluded that the cause of the explosion could not be ascertained. The military court of inquiry also ruled that Colonel Symington had followed all precautions correctly, but he was relieved of command less than a month later.

During his testimony before both of the inquiries, Alexander McBride, who had been trained as a cooper, testified that the company which supplied the gunpowder, namely the E.I. DuPont Company, insisted on reusing the barrels and that this practice caused the lids to fit too loosely after prolonged use of the barrels. This resulted in leaks of gunpowder during transport of the barrels, and witnesses testified that the stone roadway was covered with gunpowder. McBride also stated that he had made this concern known to the company. He further asserted that he was so worried about sparks like the one that reportedly triggered the explosion that he had the stone roadway covered with wood chips and sawdust to prevent sparks, but that Symington ordered that the wood chips and sawdust be removed. Symington claimed that there was gunpowder on the roadway because workers routinely swept spilled gunpowder out of the building rather than removing it properly. The Dupont Company was never investigated, and some have surmised that this is because DuPont was the primary supplier of gunpowder to the U.S. War Department. It will never be known with certainty whether leaky barrel lids or poor adherence to safety procedures was the reason for the gunpowder on the stone roadway.

Monument to the victims of the Allegheny Arsenal explosion
The monument is in Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Whatever the reason for the explosion, 78 people lost their lives, including 70 of the Union’s Rosie the Riveters. Their spirit was captured in a comment made by a visitor to a munitions factory in Indianapolis, who observed, “It is a beautiful and patriotic sight to see the young and tender happy in the bloody work. They laugh and chat gaily as they roll up the balls and fix the fatal charge intended to let daylight through some man’s heart.” Those who perished in the Allegheny Arsenal explosion are more names that were added to the bloodiest day in American military history alongside those who died in the Battle of Antietam. On the monument at the mass grave in Allegheny Cemetery is an inscription that reads in part, “Tread softly, this is consecrated dust, forty-five pure patriotic victims lie here. A sacrifice to freedom and civil liberty, a horrid memento of a most wicked rebellion.”

Note: The Confederacy also suffered a tragic explosion at a munitions factory in which many women lost their lives. This was the explosion at the Brown’s Island Laboratory in Richmond, Virginia, which occurred on March 13, 1863, almost six months after the Allegheny Arsenal explosion. The Brown’s Island Laboratory explosion is the topic of the history brief of March 2014, which is titled The Day Rosie the Riveter Died.