The Day Rosie the Riveter Died

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 March 2014 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

One of the most iconic images from World War II is Rosie the Riveter. It is a stylized depiction of a female factory worker, and it is meant to portray the large number of American women who worked in factories to provide materiel for the war effort. The Civil War had its generation of Rosie the Riveters, and on Friday March 13, 1863 a horrendous tragedy befell a number of them. This occurred when there was an explosion at the Confederate Laboratory on Brown’s Island in Richmond, Virginia.

The Brown’s Island Laboratory was not a laboratory in the sense that we know today; there was no testing or experimentation happening there. The Confederate Laboratory on Brown’s Island was a munitions factory. While the small number of administrators were men, almost all of the workers were women between the ages of 9 and 20, and all of them were poor. The Brown’s Island Laboratory was distinct from the Tredegar Iron Works and manufactured cartridges, fuses, caps, grenades, and friction primers. The facility was located on an island near the northern shore of the James River. Originally the facility was in some buildings on land near the James River, but Brown’s Island was cleared and the facility relocated to separate it from the city in case of an accident.

Photograph showing Brown’s Island (left of the water) and Tredegar Iron Works (right)

On March 13, 1863, 80 to 100 workers were in a large room at the factory. Several different activities had been consolidated in the room, because an expansion of another building had not been completed. In one part of the room small arms cartridges were being filled with gunpowder, and in another part of the room defective cartridges were being broken open to salvage the gunpowder for reuse. Other workers in the room were boxing percussion caps and friction primers, and still others were filling cannon cartridge bags with gunpowder. There was also a coal stove in the room.

The explosion occurred between 11:00 a.m. and noon. The cause of the explosion was detailed afterward by Mary Ryan, an 18-year-old Irish immigrant who caused the explosion. She was making friction primers that day in the same room where the other activities were taking place. For those who do not know what friction primers are, they are short metal tubes filled with explosive material that are used to detonate the gunpowder inside a cannon in order to propel the projectile. As the name implies, friction primers are designed to detonate via the application of friction. One of the last steps in manufacturing primers involved coating them with wax and varnish to protect them from moisture.

Mary was having difficulty removing some primers from the wooden board on which she had varnished them, probably because the varnish had bonded the primers to the board. She tried to separate the primers from the board by banging the board against the table on which she was working. This was sufficient to detonate the primers, and Mary was thrown up to the ceiling. After coming down, Mary was thrown by a second explosion that was most likely caused by the airborne gunpowder dust or the other explosives in the room.

The explosions lifted the roof off of the building and blasted the walls to pieces, which caused debris to fall onto the workers. Although the building was made of wood, the fire was extinguished quickly. According to later reports, 10 to 12 workers were killed in the initial explosion. A number of other workers were burned terribly, and some women whose clothes caught fire jumped into the James River. One woman whose clothing was on fire ran in a panic toward another of the laboratory buildings in which gunpowder and other combustible material was stored. Fortunately she was grabbed by a male employee, which likely prevented even more damage and loss of life. It is not certain how many fatalities there were, but at least 45 people died, of whom all but three were women or girls, some as young as 10 to 15 years. Some of the dead are buried in Hollywood Cemetery, including Mary Ryan, who died three days after the explosion that she caused. Funerals were so numerous in the days following the explosion that some corteges passed by each other.

Monument to the victims of the Brown’s Island Laboratory explosion
The monument is in Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.
The first name on the monument is Mary Ryan, the person who caused the explosion.

Articles in Richmond newspapers described the aftermath of the explosion. One article read in part, “The most heart rending lamentations and cries issued from the ruins from the sufferers rendered delirious from suffering and terror. No sooner was one helpless, unrecognizable mass of humanity cared for and removed before the piteous appeals of another would invoke the energy of the rescuers. From twenty to thirty still alive suffered the most horrible agonies, blind from burns, with the hair burned from their heads, and the clothing hanging in burning shreds about their persons. Mothers rushed wildly about, throwing themselves upon the corpses of the dead, and the persons of the wounded, trying to recognize the disfigured features of a daughter, and calling out their names. The distress among friends was aggravated by the fact that it was utterly impossible to recognize many of the wounded on account of their disfigurement.” A gruesome description in another article read, “Some of the unfortunate girls were burnt from head to foot, others were burned in the face and eyes; some had an arm or a leg divested of flesh and skin, others were bleeding with wounds received from the falling timbers or in the violent concussions against floor and ceiling which ensued.”

Marker for the Brown’s Island Laboratory explosion

Richmond Mayor Joseph Mayo organized economic assistance for the affected families through the Young Men’s Christian Association. Richmond residents also provided some assistance, and even Confederate soldiers contributed. One soldier sent a donation to the Richmond Sentinel with a note that read, “A non-resident of the city, I beg to appeal to all humane people in the city and the State, to contribute to so laudable a purpose. The poor wounded creatures are young females who were dependent on their daily labor for their support. I send you five dollars and am only sorry I cannot afford more.” About two months after the explosion, the Brown’s Island Laboratory resumed full operation, and it continued to operate, with new safety policies and without incident, until Richmond fell. There was no difficulty in recruiting new workers for the facility in spite of the evidence of the extreme occupational hazards that the explosion had demonstrated.

Although the easy replacement of the workers was due principally to the need for income among the group of people from whom the workers came, the Rosie the Riveter spirit of these Confederate women was captured in a passage in the Richmond Examiner after the facility returned to operation. This passage, which is flavored with more than a hint of gory propaganda, reads, “Embowered in the deep shade of Brown’s Island, with its busy colony of female operatives the laboratory works are well worthy a visit. Here the delicate hands of the southern maiden put up the little packet of powder and bullet (that) the thicker finger and unerring aim of the southern soldier sends on its mission of death into the breast and brain of the invader.”

A more personal Rosie the Riveter comment came after the war when a young woman who had been in the explosion spoke with a reporter. The reporter recorded that “her hands and face were covered with cruel scars.” The young woman told the reporter, “But I did not mind, for it was in a good cause.”

Note: The Union also suffered a tragic explosion at a munitions factory in which many women lost their lives. This was the explosion at the Allegheny Arsenal in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, which occurred on September 17, 1862, the same day as the Battle of Antietam and almost six months before the Brown’s Island Laboratory explosion. The Allegheny Arsenal explosion is the topic of the history brief of April 2014, which is titled Rosie the Riveter and the Bloodiest Day in American Military History.