Pittsburgh's Bloodiest Day
By Lawrence J. Spinnenweber Jr.
On the morning of September 19, 1862, the New York Tribune
printed the first report of the battle that had been fought two days
earlier along Maryland's Antietam Creek. Within hours every Northern
city buzzed with talk of the war's bloodiest day. Every city, that
is, except Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The people of this city had
another event, just as deadly, to occupy their minds.
Great clouds of sulphur-smelling smoke hung over Pittsburgh as well
as Sharpsburg, and homes and sheds in Pittsburgh were turned into
hospitals and morgues just as they were in Maryland. On the
afternoon of September 17, 1862, a series of explosions destroyed a
laboratory workshop at the United States Allegheny Arsenal, killing
seventy-eight civilian workers employed there and injuring over
seventy more. It was the worst civilian disaster of the Civil War. .
The history of the arsenal itself began almost fifty years earlier.
Pittsburgh in 1812 was the gateway to the West. Following the post
road from Philadelphia Conestoga wagons brought immigrants from the
East to Pittsburgh. Here settlers piled their belongings on the
flatboats that would carry them down the Ohio River to frontier
lands in Ohio and Kentucky. The Unites States Government realized
the importance of having a military post here to supply the army
units that were sent to the frontier to protect the settlers from
hostile Indians and enemy invasion. (America was at war with England
at this time and the battles on Lake Erie were not too far away to
rule out an invasion.) .
The War Department appointed Colonel Abram R. Woolley and William
Barclay Foster, father of composer Stephen Foster, to select an
appropriate site for an arsenal. On April 9, 1814, Foster sold the
United States Government thirty acres of his own land for $12,000.
Subsequent purchases increased the arsenal's property to
thirty-eight acres. The arsenal was bounded on one side by the
Greensburg Turnpike, now known as Penn Avenue, and by the Allegheny
River on the other. It lay between Covington and Pike Streets, the
present day 39th and 40th Streets. .
Butler Street bisected the arsenal into two halves called the Upper
and Lower Parks. The Upper Park contained brick stables and a powder
magazine large enough to store 1,300 barrels of powder. The heart of
the arsenal, however, was the Lower Park, which held two carriage
and three timber sheds, a three-story, military store, officers'
quarters, barracks, an armory, a smithy, the main powder magazine,
and carriage, machine, paint, and accouterment shops. About 1857 a
large medieval archway was erected over the Butler Street entrance
to the Upper Park. One side of the arch contained a guard house; the
other an engine house where the arsenal's firre engine was stored. .
The village of Lawrenceville, founded by William Foster and named
after Captain James Lawrence, naval hero fo the War of 1812, grew up
around the arsenal. The people of Lawrenceville supported the post
by working in the arsenal itself or by supplying the men stationed
there with goods and services. .
The arsenal became important to the community socially as well. Post
commanders held dances and receptions. Charles Dickens, on his 1842
American tour, visited Pittsburgh and described the post as a
"pretty arsenal." The arsenal was also visited by President James
Monroe in 1817, by the Marquis de Lafayette in 1825, and by former
President John Quincy Adams in 1843. In 1840, as the body of
President William Henry Harrison, dead of pneumonia, passed through
Pittsburgh, the arsenal guns fired a salute. .
With the outbreak of civil war the arsenal rose even higher in
prominence. The manufacture of arms and munitions increased, as did
the number of civilians employed in the manufacturing process.
Twelve hundred civilian employees were hired by the War Department
to work in the Allegheny Arsenal. The citizens of Lawrenceville
carefully watched the streets around the arsenal, reporting any
suspicious-looking characters to the authorities lest the arsenal be
sabotaged by the enemy. .
The post commander at the arsenal when the war began was Colonel
John Symington, assigned there in 1857. Symington, sixth in his
class at West Point in 1815, had given the country nearly fifty
years of military service. Even so, there were those who questioned
his loyalty. .
Symington was a Marylander. One of his sons served in the
Confederate army and one of his daughters shocked and angered the
people of Pittsburgh by appearing in church one Sunday morning with
a Confederate rosette pinned to her dress. But the most damning
evidence came in December of 1860. .
After the secession of South Carolina, Secretary of War John Floyd,
a man with know Southern sympathies, ordered cannon and small arms
shipped to New Orleans and other ports in Texas. Symington, the
career soldier, followed Floyd's instructions and began preparation
for the shipment of arms. When the news became public, the people of
Pittsburgh rebelled. .
The Pittsburgh Gazette condemned the action and encouraged citizens
to arm themselves since the government could no longer be trusted to
protect them. Civilian workers at the arsenal sabotaged operations
in order to delay shipment. Citizens of Pittsburgh blocked the
streets so that the wagons carrying the weapons could not be moved
to the ships and trains waiting to take them southward. Businessmen
besieged Washington City with telegrams demanding an explanation for
the transfer of weapons. .
Eventually Floyd's orders were brought to the attention of the War
Department and on January 3, 1861, the shipments were stopped. Even
though Symington was merely carrying out the instructions of his
superior, as any soldier would, the public saw his obedience as a
sign of his Rebel sympathies. It was the events of September 17,
1862, however, that placed the final nail in the coffin lid of his
military career. .
Early on that Wednesday morning, as Union and Confederate armies met
each other in the West Woods behind the Dunker Church, Alexander
McBride, foreman of the arsenal's ammunition laboratory, arrived to
begin the day's work. .
The laboratory itself was a wooden frame building shaped like the
letter E. The back and arms of the E were divided into eight
workrooms. In the space between the arms were two covered porches
where deliveries could be made. About thirty yards away stood a
smaller building which housed two more workrooms and the boiler that
was used to steam heat both buildings in the winter. Between the two
structures was a small wooden shed used as a tiring room where
female employees could hang their bonnets and wraps. .
One hundred-eighty-six civilians, one hundred-fifty-six women and
girls and thirty men and boys, worked here under McBride's
supervision, rolling .54 and .71 caliber cartridges and filling
10-pounder and 12-pounder cannon shells. .
It was dangerous to work with gunpowder, but no one felt unsafe.
Since 1846 McBride had overseen the manufacture of small arms and
ammunition, as well as, according to an 1856 notebook, fireworks,
and there had never been an accident. Besides, if the work was
unsafe, McBride would never have allowed his fifteen-year-old
daughter, Kate, to take a job in the laboratory. Kate worked with
other young girls in workroom No. 6, the cap and cylinder room. .
It was not unusual for children to be employed in munition work. As
early as 1812, Colonel of Artillery Decius Wadsworth had written to
the Secretary of War, "In the making of musket cartidges, children
of twelve or fourteen years of age can be employed as usefully or
even more so than men." Hired for their small hands and dexterity,
children, some as young as ten, willingly went to work in the
Allegheny Arsenal. Some of them, young as they were, were moved by a
sense of patriotism. .
Eighteen-year-old Agnes Davison told her minister, the Reverend
Richard Lea, "that she was for the Union and that she would no
longer be a secessionist from the government of God." Agnes and her
older sister, Mary, left home that morning for work in the arsenal.
As they walked through the streets of Lawrenceville, Mary sang a
hymn that the sisters had sung in Sunday School the previous
High in younder realms of light Dwell the raptured saints above; Far
beyond our feeble sight, Happy in Immanual's love. .
But these days of weeping o'er, Past this scene of toil and pain,
They shall feel distress no more, Never, never weep again. .
Every tear is wiped away, Sighs no more will heave the breast; Night
is lost in endless day, Sorrow, in eternal rest.
While fierce Confederate fire cut down General Hooker's men in the
Miller cornfield, Mary Murphey hung her bonnet and shawl in the
tiring room. The arsenal provided young women, not only a chance to
serve their country, but economic independence as well. In an era
with few employment opportunities for women, a position at the
arsenal meant steady, respectable work. As a cartridge roller Mary
Murphey made seventy-five cents a day, thirty cents less than David
Gilliland did in the same job. Even so, she drew fifteen dollars a
month pay, two dollars more than a Federal private received. .
Wednesday, September 17, happened to be pay day. Military Store
Keeper and Paymaster's clerk, Mr. Bosworth, and his assistant, Mr.
Teese, set up their table in the tiring shed. Throughout the day
employees would be called from the workrooms to received their pay.
As General George B. McClellan met with his subordinates in Philip
Pry's farmhouse to discuss the progress of the battle, Colonel
Symington met with his subordinates in his office to discuss the
progress of the work under their charge. .
Both of Symington's subordinates were very young. Second Lieutentant
John R. Edie had graduated from West Point in June of 1861. Her
served as aide-de-camp for then Colonel Orlando B. Wilcox during the
First Battle of Bull Run. In October of 1861 he was transferred to
the Allegheny Arsenal. .
His associate, Second Lieutenant Jasper Myers, had graduated from
the Point on June 14, 1862. This was his first assignment. He was
general superintendent of the laboratory and shops, a position he
had inherited from Edie about a month before. Myers was to inspect
the laboratory and shops and see that all was maintained properly.
He was also to attend to the shipment of finished arms. .
It was an uneventful morning. Work proceeded as usual. In the
cartridge room "bundlers" rolled squares of paper into tubes and
then tied one end closed with yellow cord. The tube was then filled
with a minie ball and gunpowder. After the cartridges were filled,
"pinchers" pinched or folded the open end closed. Arsenal employees
were able to roll 1, 500, 000 cartridges every other day. At this
moment, cartridges rolled by the women and children of Pittsburgh
were being fired at Rebel soldiers entrenched in the Sunken Road. .
At powder magazine No. 2, teamster Joseph Frick loaded his wagon
with barrels of gunpowder which he would deliver for use at the
laboratory. Arsenal regulations stated that tarpaulins were to be
laid in the bottom of wagons to catch any powder that may be
spilled. Frick, along with the other arsenal teamsters, neglected to
do this. As he drove to and from the laboratory, powder sifted
through the cracks in the wagon bed and fell on the road below. .
The barrels were delivered to the laboratory's two, covered porches.
The deliveries were received by workroom supervisors, such as Joseph
Bollman, supervisor of the cap and cylinder room. In moving the
barrels and in the making of the cartridges, powder was inevitably
spilled. At the end of the workday, after most of the employees had
gone home, boys were to sweep out the rooms of the laboratory. If
the powder was clean, it was to be taken to the magazine for future
use. If the powder was mixed with dirt, however, it was to be poured
into a small pond on the arsenal grounds. More often than not, the
boys, when they were not smuggling the powder out of the arsenal to
make homemade Roman candles, simply swept the powder into the
McBride had reprimanded the boys on several occasions for this. He
had recently dismissed several boys for bringing matches to work and
had hired girls as their replacements. He threatened to do the same
with the sweepers, but the threats seemed to have no effect on the
boys. Although Lieutenant Myers would later testify that he saw no
powder in the street on the day of the disaster, Rachel Dunlap would
state that she had seen powder swept into the street on more that
one occasion. .
About midday General McClellan ordered General Burnside to take the
lower bridge over Antietam Creek. Two attempts to take the bridge
had failed. For the third attempt Burnside chose Colonel Edward
Ferrero's brigade. Ferrero, in turn, promised his men their whiskey
ration if they could take the bridge. .
In Pittsburgh clock towers struck twelve noon, church bells rang the
Angelus, and workers all over the city laid down their tools. Some
arsenal employees went home for lunch while others, having brought
their meals in tin lunch pails and wicker dinner baskets, ate in the
shade of the trees that grew on the arsenal grounds. .
During the dinner break employees strolled over the road that ran
from the laboratory to powder magazine No. 2. The road was
relatively new, having been built the previous spring to replace the
rutted dirt road that was considered unsafe. It was a macadamized
road built from broken pieces of stone pressed tightly together and
cemented with a mortar made from stone, dust, and water. .
As the workmen broke stone for the road, Alexander McBride had
noticed that with each blow the iron heads of the hammers struck
showers of sparks from the stone, not unlike steel against flint.
McBride commented that it would be unsafe to have powder carried
over this stone by horses shod with iron shoes and wagons with
wheels bound with iron bands. His concerns were noted, but
construction on the road continued. .
It was the practice to wash down the road with water since it would
be more difficult to strike a spark from wet stone and to ignite wet
powder. For the past few weeks the country had been experiencing a
drought and wells in Lawrenceville were going dry. Orders were given
to discontinue the wetting of the street so as to conserve water.
The late summer breeze now blew grains of black powder across the
dry, flint-like stone. .
At about 1:00 p.m. the 51st New York and the 51st Pennsylvania, both
under the command of Colonel Ferrero, secured the bridge that now
bears Burnside's name, while at the arsenal employees returned to
work. Paymaster Bosworth went back to counting pay. Teamsters loaded
and unloaded their wagons. Conversation hummed around the
worktables. Some of the women sang as they worked and their voices
drifted through the laboratory's open windows. .
Joseph Frick brought ten barrels of powder to the laboratory. He
unloaded three barrels on the ground in front of the porch next to
workroom No. 1, five barrels at the end of the second porch, and
took the remaining barrels to the other side of the tiring shed. A
young man named Robert Smith came around the corner and asked Frick
to come back to room No. 1 and haul away some empty cylinder boxes.
Frick agreed. .
It was a little past 2:00 p.m. when Frick returned for the boxes.
One of the barrels just delivered had been opened and Robert Smith
stood on the porch over the powder, waiting for Frick. .
As Frick backed his wagon up to the porch, he turned around to see
where he was going. He was about four feet from the porch when he
saw orange fire burning across the ground beneath the wheels of his
At the other end of the building, Rachel Dunlap stood in the doorway
of room No. 12. She saw the shadow of a wagon and stepped out onto
the porch to watch Frick work. She, too, saw the fire upon the
ground. As she watched, the flames flared up against the barrels of
powder. Rachel screamed, threw her arms over her head, and ran
inside to find her sister. .
With a terrific roar the barrels of powder exploded, throwing fire
and debris. Robert Smith was blown apart. The wagon was destroyed
and the horses badly burned. Joseph Frick was thrown two hundred
yards and landed with his head through the palings of a fence. .
The concussion of the blast threw Rachel Dunlap to the floor. Her
sister helped her up and they ran from the building. Several other
girls managed to escape, some with their dresses on fire. .
Alexander McBride had just received an order for proof charges for a
fifteen-inch gun to be proved the next day. He was in room No. 8
placing the order on the books when her heard Rachel Dunlap scream
and the powder explode. As the walls of the room began to fall in,
McBride climbed out the window. He ran along the side of the
building to room No.6, his daughter's room. He could see the ceiling
dropping in on the children. He tried to enter the room but fire and
smoke forced him back. Joseph Bollman emerged from the room carrying
a child. He let the girl down to the ground and then went back
inside. He never came out again. Dazed, McBride ran to find water. .
Paymaster Bosworth and Mr. Teese grabbed the payroll records and
fled the tiring shed. Mrs. Mary Jane Black was in room No. 13. She
had just been called to receive her pay when the explosion shook the
building. She ran from the room. It was at this time that the second
explosion occurred. .
Field Ammunition rooms 9 and 11 erupted with a blast so strong that
it blew the roof off the laboratory and shattered the windows of all
the buildings in the arsenal and the surrounding streets, including
the windows of Reverend Lea's Presbyterian church. The laboratory
walls collapsed on those still inside. .
As she ran, Mrs. Black heard screaming behind her. Turning around
she saw two women running after her, both on fire and begging for
help. Mrs. Black tried in vain to save them, and then she fled to
safety. Only a few minutes after she left it, room No 13, Mrs.
Black's workroom, exploded. .
Lieutenant Edie was in Colonel Symington's office drawing at the
time of the explosions. He later said, "It sounded like the firing
of a cannon -- three rapid reports." As he ran toward the
laboratory, he saw employees struggling to pull the arsenal's fire
engine up the hill to the pond. He helped the men pull the fire
engine over to the pond and then assisted in forming a bucket line.
While he was working, an unexploded barrel of powder was discovered
lying nearby, covered with debris. Edie, with the help from other
men, rolled the barrel into the pond. .
On his way to find water, Alexander McBride came across two small
girls, naked and in shock. The explosion had thrown them from the
laboratory, tearing away their clothes in the process. Seeing that
the girls were frightened but unhurt, McBride helped them to shelter
in a stable. Lieutenant Myers found McBride here and ordered him to
find men and organize a bucket line around the magazine to prevent
the fire from spreading to the stored powder. McBride ran to the
magazine, closed and secured the magazine door, and then formed the
bucket line ordered by Myers. Myers later came and joined McBride
and his men.
Colonel Symington was returning to his office from his quarters when
he saw the first explosion. As he ran to the laboratory, he passed a
brick storehouse where three hundred women were employed. Although
no powder was used in this building, the women were terrified of
being blown up and burned. Men had blocked the doorways, trying to
keep the women behind the brick walls, shielded from flying debris.
The women, unable to escape through the doors, began to jump from
the second story windows. Symington stopped and tried to calm the
women. He realized that they were so panic-stricken that, if the
doors were opened, the women would crush each other in the attempt
to get out. He called for ladders and ordered the men to assist the
women down one at a time from the second story windows. .
By the time Symington arrived at the laboratory, the third explosion
had occurred and both buildings were burning uncontrollably.
Symington began to direct the firefighters. .
The explosions were heard all over the city. At first many thought
that it was an enemy attack, but they soon realized the truth. The
people of Lawrenceville were the first to reach the arsenal. The men
of the village joined the arsenal workers in fighting the fire.
Lawrenceville's new fire engine, which had arrived from its
manufacturers only five days before, was pulled by hand through the
streets of Lawrenceville to fight its first fire. The men fought
desperately to put out the fire and rescue victims from the inferno.
Their work was made more difficult by the 125, 000 cartridges and
175 rounds of field ammunition, that day's production, which
continued to explode as the building burned. .
The women of Lawrenceville descended upon the arsenal with wine,
lint, and bandages. Some formed a protective line to comfort
terrified relatives of arsenal employees. Others administered what
aid they could to the injured. Those who could be moved were treated
at the arsenal and then moved to temporary hospitals in nearby
homes. There were others, however, so badly burned that it was
obvious they would not recover. They were carried aside on makeshift
stretchers of wooden planks and laid side by side with the dead.
Clergymen moved among the dying, praying with them and administering
last rites. .
About 3:30 p.m. General A.P Hill arrived at Sharpsburg, bringing
reinforcements and effectively saving General Lee's army from
destruction. By 5:30 p.m. the Battle of Antietam was over. At the
same time the scene at the Allegheny Arsenal could have rivaled the
battlefield in horror. .
The laboratory was a smoldering ruin from which rescuers continued
to pull victims. The air was heavy with the smell of sulpher and
burned flesh. Here and there on their makeshift stretchers lay
"bodies, charred and swollen." Overhead the trees had been stripped
of leaves by the explosions and in their place the branches held
bits of clothing. The ground around the laboratory was a macabre
collection of charred wood, minie balls, percussion caps, grape
shot, shrapnel from exploded shells, cartidge paper, melted lead,
crushed bonnets, battered dinner baskets, lost shoes. .
For two days family members visited the arsenal trying to identify
the dead. It was difficult work, for many of the bodies were burned
beyond recognition. One woman was finally identified by her false
teeth; another by a piece of dress that remained unscorched. In many
cases there were no bodies. Several victims had been torn apart by
the explosions and body parts were found throughout the arsenal
grounds. One young girl's finger, all that was found of her, was
identified by her ring. A foot found outside the gate was recognized
by its shoe. It was even harder to give names to those who were
trapped inside the laboratory. The fire was so hot that everything
burned, and all that the rescuers found of the women were piles of
white ash surrounded by the steel wire of the hoops they had been
Gradually a list of the dead was compiled. It contained
seventy-eight names, seventy-two of them women and girls. Among the
victims were Robert Smith, Joseph Bollman, Kate McBride, cartridge
rollers David Gilliland and Mary Murphey, Agnes and Mary Davison. On
the afternoon of Thursday, September 18, in plain black coffins
issued by the government, thirty-nine victims were laid to rest in a
common grave in Allegheny Cemetery. At the same time, Father Gibbs
buried six identified victims from his parish in the adjacent St.
Mary's Cemetery. .
On Friday, September 19, two days after the disaster, a coroner's
jury met to investigate the explosions. The jury met again on
Monday, September 22, Tuesday evening, September 23, Wednesday
evening, September 24, and Saturday evening, September 27. Colonel
Symington, Lieutenants Edie and Myers, Joseph Frick, Alexander
McBride, Rachel Dunlap, and Mary Jane Black, among others, were
called to give testimony. The Pittsburgh Daily Post printed reports
of each day's proceedings and on Monday morning, September 29, 1862,
published the findings of the coroner's jury. .
The exact cause of the accident has never been determined, but the
theory put forth by the seven man jury is still held today: one of
Joseph Frick's horses, stamping it foot against the pavement, struck
out a spark with its iron horse shoe. That spark, in turn, ignited
the loose powder on the ground. Wiht two jurors dissenting, the
verdict reached by the majority of the jury read: "that the said
explosion was caused by the neglect of Col. John Symington, the
officer in command at the Allegheny Arsenal, and by his Lieutenants
J.R. Edie and Jasper Myers, and the gross neglect of Alexander
McBride, Superintendent of said laboratory building and his
assistant, James Thorp." .
Symington, feeling the verdict was unfair and still fighting the
rumors that he was a Confederate sympathizer, requested that a
military Court of Inquiry conduct its own investigation. The Cout
convened in October and eventually upheld the civilian jury's
rulings. Symington was relieved of his command on November 1, 1862.
He was placed on sick leave from that date until June 1, 1863. He
served briefly at the Washington, D.C., naval shipyard and then
retired from military service. His reputation ruined by the arsenal
disaster, Symington died on April 4, 1864, in Hartford County,
In December of 1862, Lieutenant Edie was transferred to the ordnance
department of the Army of the Potomac. From August of 1863 until
December of 1864 he would serve on the staff of General George G.
Meade. After the war he held posts at the Detroit Arsenal, the
Washington Arsenal, and the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts. His
later life, however, was not free from tragedy. He died in 1874 at
age thirty-six in Washington, D.C.'s asylum for the insane. .
About a month after Edie's transfer, Lieutenant Myers was himself
promoted to the post of Chief of Ordnance of the Department of North
Carolina. Myers retired from the army in 1870 and became a lawyer.
He practice law in San Francisco until his death in 1918 at the age
of eighty. .
In spite of being named responsible for the explosion, as well as
his own daughter's death, Alexander McBride remained an employee of
the arsenal. When he later wrote his recollections of the incident,
McBride never mentioned Kate's involvement in the disaster. .
Work at the arsenal continued with only a slight interruption.
Temporary buildings were erected to house the employees until the
laboratory could be rebuilt. Throughout the war the Allegheny
Arsenal continued to supply the Federal army with arms and
ammunition. Production at the arsenal continued until the
turn-of-the-twentieth century. In 1906 the name was changed to the
Pittsburgh Storage and Supply Depot. Twenty years later the
government relinquished control of the arsenal property to the city.
Old building were torn down or renovated and new structures were
built. In 1946 the gothic archway was torn down. Preservationists
had planned to reconstruct the gate, but over the years the
archway’s bricks were used in retaining walls and as parking lot
filler, rendering reconstruction impossible, and the arsenal passed
into memory. .
In 1867 the village of Lawrenceville was incorporated into the city
of Pittsburgh and became one of that industrial center's many
distinctive and historic neighborhoods. .
In 1863 an Egyptian obelisk inscribed with the names of the victims
was raised over the common grave in Allegheny Cemetery. The next
sixty-five years took their toll on the monument and in 1928 it was
replaced with a newer memorial. .
The Allegheny Arsenal explosion was not the only arsenal disaster to
occur during the Civil War. In June 1864, an explosion at
Washington, D.C.'s Washington Arsenal claimed twenty-three lives.
Their common funeral in Washington's Congressional Cemetery was
attended by President Lincoln. But lacking a presidential visitation
and overshadowed by the Battle of Antietam, the Allegheny Arsenal
accident, though it claimed over three times as many lives, remains
forgotten and unknown to many. .
The deaths in the town of Lawrenceville were just as real as those
in the towns of Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg, and the
sacrifices here were just as great. Perhaps no words can describe
the honor due these men, women, and children better than the words
inscribed by their neighbors on the original memorial and copied
onto the present monument: .
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. Patriots! these are patriots'
graves, friends of humble, honest toil, these were your peers.
Fervent affection kindled these hearts, honest industry employed
these hands, widows' and orphans' tears have watered the 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..
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