The War in Their Words: The Allegheny Arsenal Explosion

On Memorial Day 1889, Civil Warfare veterans gathered with civilians on the Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville, Pa., simply east of Pittsburgh, to reminisce and keep in mind these misplaced not solely on the battlefield however on the house entrance as properly. Notably, Lawrenceville was the location of the conflict’s largest industrial and home-front catastrophe—the Allegheny Arsenal explosion of September 17, 1862. A easy obelisk had been positioned close to the southern finish of the cemetery to memorialize that day’s horrific occasions. Beneath it lay the unidentified stays of about 40 of the 78 employees who had perished within the blast and subsequent fireplace. Relations, mates, and survivors solemnly laid flowers concerning the website and listened to a strong eulogy delivered by the Rev. Richard Lea, an area pastor who had skilled the tragedy firsthand.

Though overshadowed in nationwide periodicals by the Battle of Antietam, occurring the identical day, the arsenal accident continued to resonate closely with the local people for greater than a century. On September 18, 1862, John Symington, the arsenal’s colonel of ordnance, famous that “the entire proceeds of the day…exploded, amounting to about 125,000 of .71 and .54 [caliber] small arm cartridges, and 175 rounds of subject ammunition assorted for 12-pounder and 10-pounder Parrott weapons.” Although Lawrenceville was removed from the battlefields, the considered that day conjured up warlike reminiscences for survivors and witnesses alike. As army veterans honored their fallen on battlefields postwar, Lawrence­ville’s civilians likewise paid their respects on the hallowed floor of the arsenal.

Staff who toiled on the arsenal would have handed by way of the principle gate, pictured above. From 1891 to 1911, Pittsburgh formally dropped the “h” from its title, therefore the spelling. (Library of Congress)

A local of Coventry, England, Lea had served as a pastor within the Pittsburgh space for no less than 55 years—a majority of that interval on the Lawrenceville Presbyterian Church, which stood lower than a block away from the arsenal grounds. He was a revered member of the group who oversaw a big congregation and was regarded for his compassion. Lea, the truth is, had borne witness to warlike imagery on the arsenal. One of many first to reach within the wake of the explosion, after the primary of three blasts shattered most of his church’s home windows about 2 p.m., the reverend scaled the arsenal wall and started rendering assist to the wounded and offering consolation to the dying. Lea quickly found that three of his parishioners had been among the many departed.

On September 28, 1862, Lea delivered a stirring sermon to his congregation chronicling the horrors he had witnessed. The next account illustrates his experiences in graphic element.

“The uncertainty of human life was by no means extra strikingly proven on this group than upon the memorable seventeenth day of September, 1862. The morning was calm and delightful, and till midday nothing uncommon occurred on the Allegheny Arsenal. It was pay day, and the noble Union women, who had toiled all of the month, had been rejoicing over the reception of the fruit of their labor. The store had been swept, and among the many leavings, some free powder was scattered over the stony street winding across the lovely grounds. A wagon was passing, when both the iron of the wheel or horse’s shoe struck fireplace. Instantly a terrific explosion was heard, shaking the earth, and inflicting damage upon the encircling buildings. Amidst a dense column of smoke, and a vibrant sheet of flame, had been seen fragments of the constructing, blended with parts of the human body, rising excessive into the ambiance, after which falling in a horrid bathe throughout.

An unique copy of Reverend Richard Lea’s September 17, 1889, memorial deal with. (Library of Congress)

Some panic-stricken individuals shouted: ‘The journal is on fireplace!’ Repeated explosions, and the wild confusion, appeared to substantiate the terrible report. On this dreadful stage some had been considerate and calm—others prayed and wept, whereas many rushed, horror-stricken, they knew not whither. A couple of stopped not till they had been miles from the scene of hazard. A number of had been picked up insensible, and when consciousness returned, had been unable to inform whither they had been going or wherefore that they had fled.

However amidst all this dismay and fearful consternation and apprehension of nonetheless worse to return, when the journal ought to explode, there have been many who entered the gates and climbed the partitions, decided to help, or die within the try. The doorways of the massive constructing close to the doorway to the park had been closed, and the frantic women, supposing themselves confined for sure burning, with out hope of escape, pushed and trod upon one another, screaming and leaping from the home windows, searching for avenues of escape, or sitting down in dumb despair. Unusual that extra weren’t mangled right here; because it was, critical accidents had been inflicted, and terror was added to the scene.

However the central terror was the burning laboratory. Right here 100 and fifty-six women had been able to resume their labors, and had been, nearly with out a second’s warning, wrapped in flames, or violently thrown from the constructing; a number of ran, or had been blown out into the yard, and escaped; some had been rescued by the daring of mates, however the majority met dying instantaneously—maybe hardly realizing the reason for their dying. The hearth was so fierce, the sulphur so suffocating, that an immediate was enough to extinguish all sensibility. Some had been dragged from a mass of ruins who had died in one another’s arms; some had been rescued who would get better. A couple of escaped with out help, who will die of their accidents. Some may merely point out their names, or name for a priest, or for water, or for prayer, however all upon the bottom had been bare, blackened with powder, roasted, considerably bloody, and with many the resemblance to the human type was utterly misplaced. 

Nothing however lots of flesh and charred bones remaining of what, such a short while earlier than, was life and wonder. In most situations the skulls of these taken out lifeless had been fearfully cracked. The victims lay about upon boards and shutters, amidst a horror-stricken crowd, the bushes above holding fragments of feminine apparel, mournfully waving backward and forward over their former homeowners. It might be potential that a number of had been completely consumed—not a distinguishable relic being left to testify respecting their premature finish. The constructing was completely consumed, and the ashes had been rigorously raked for each vestige of its former occupants. The calamity was so sudden, so crushing, so wide-spread in its outcomes, and the horrors so diversified, that the massive crowd which assembled appeared overwhelmed—the same old indicators of sharp woe giving technique to solemn remarks or the stillness of stupefaction.

When the hearth was completely subdued, the noise, the turmoil of the scene was over, then got here the horrible, orderly strategy of identification and burial. A hand was recognized outdoors the grounds by a hoop upon the finger, a leg by a shoe upon the foot ; however in neither case was the previous proprietor of the fragments discovered. A guardian would bend over some blackened corpse, inspecting minutely type, hair, any relic of gown, after which drop down silently if nothing was found, or shriek wildly if one thing definitely proved that these modified our bodies had been actually the stays of their family members. 

From its main gate along Penn Avenue, the arsenal followed the downward slope of the land until it reached the Allegheny River. The heights in the distance are on the river’s north bank. Though most of the arsenal is long gone, artillery shells are still occasionally found. (New York Public Library Digital Collections)
From its predominant gate alongside Penn Avenue, the arsenal adopted the downward slope of the land till it reached the Allegheny River. The heights within the distance are on the river’s north financial institution. Although many of the arsenal is lengthy gone, artillery shells are nonetheless often discovered. (New York Public Library Digital Collections)

Components of two days these affecting scenes had been continuously witnessed, however after all of the efforts of deeply mates and spectators, about forty had been unrecognized. There they lay, topic to the minutest scrutiny, but neither sister nor mom may inform which of those that they had watched over from infancy, and had so recently parted from, with the farewell kiss, for the day, they supposed; however alas! it was a last adieu. The immense throng of individuals was a particular function of the scene. Automobiles and all types of autos, loaded to their utmost capability, and the sidewalks, crowded with passers backward and forward, led by each conceivable impulse, irresistibly drawn to the gates inside which such a fearful tragedy had been acted. The group was immense on Wednesday and Thursday, and for days continued lessening regularly, as if unwilling or unable altogether to flee directly from the horrible fascination of the place.

The Authorities offered plain black coffins for the un-distinguished stays. The Allegheny Cemetery donated lots appropriate for the internment. The our bodies had been regularly re-moved to their place of repose, and about three o’clock on the 18th, the mighty mass of human beings moved, accompanying the final physique from the Arsenal to the grave. The mayors of each cities had been there; the council and clergy of Lawrenceville; various carriages, and a numerous multitude of all ages and courses walked in mournful order to the place.

It was a big, deep pit—not like, in its vastness, another grave; planks had been laid throughout and from these, coffin after coffin was lowered to males under, who positioned thirty-nine coffins facet by facet, crammed by these whom nobody may acknowledge, however whom the entire group adopted and honored as sisters and brethren who fell on the put up of obligation. After the final coffin had been lowered, the chums of the deceased had been invited to the entrance rank, upon the margin of the grave, reverse the officiating clergy. Brother Millar, of the Methodist Church, provided a prayer; Dr. Gracey learn a portion of the ebook of Job; Reverend Andrews, pastor of the United Presbyterian Church, prayed; Reverend Lea, pastor of the Lawrenceville Presbyterian Church, made an deal with; and Reverend Edmonds, of the Episcopal Church, pronounced the benediction. Blather Gibbs, of the Catholic Church, signified his intention of being current, however was officiating on the identical time over the stays of different victims in St. Mary’s Cemetery, instantly adjoining. The mud was dedicated to mud till the morning of the resurrection, and a committee has been appointed to acquire funds to erect an acceptable monument to their reminiscence.

That is the one recognized picture of a girl killed within the blast, Melinda Neckerman. (Lawrenceville Historic Society)

Amongst these unrecognized stays had been some pricey to their very own church buildings for his or her piety and virtues. They are going to be missed from the home of God. Three had been members of this church—two by baptism and one by career. Mr. David Gilleland recently got here amongst us—a person of heat, modest piety, who beloved the home of God—who was nearly all the time on the prayer assembly, and who beloved to be a spectator, even when not educating within the Sunday Faculty. He won’t ever lead our singing once more, however we belief that ere now his voice has been heard amongst those that sing across the Throne. Agnes Davidson instructed me, the final time I noticed her, that she was for the Union—and that she would now not be a secessionist from the federal government of God, and would testify her like to Jesus and the Church at our subsequent communion. Mary Davidson, a youthful sister, left her house that morning, singing a stupendous hymn. Each had been dutiful at house; each had been beloved on the Sabbath Faculty, and each would in all probability have quickly been fellow communicants. We hope all three at the moment are with the blessed.

There are different issues which aren’t so painful to look upon. This darkish cloud has a silver lining.

Heroic braveness was displayed. Males dashed into the midst of the burning to save lots of, as dauntless as ever troopers stormed a battery. The partitions had been scaled, burning fragments scattered, shrieking victims carried out, with bravery by no means surpassed, displaying that peace and mercy have their heroes, with out drum and fife, with out the phrase of command or the presence of an insulting foe. One poor lady, who barely escaped with life, may hardly be prevented from speeding again to seek out her companion, and when hindered, wended her method slowly house, wailing, even upon a mattress of ache, that her buddy was misplaced.

A lady like Melinda Neckerman would have been aware of these Allegheny Arsenal artifacts used to make cartridges, a multi-holed block for holding paper tubes in an upright place, and a picket “desk” that was used to assist type and roll the rounds. (Courtesy of the John Heinz Historical past Heart, Object 72.44)

The firemen of the cities had been out with their engines, with a promptness actually praiseworthy. Fearing not the proximity of the journal, whatever the repeated explosions of the shells and cartridges, they poured their streams upon the burning mass as steadily as on a parade, or a standard conflagration.

Physicians had been there, unfed, uncalled, with the home equipment of ability, to save lots of or alleviate struggling. Clergymen had been there, amidst smoke and fireplace, to level the dying to the Lamb of God.

Ladies had been there, with lint and bandage, with oil and wine, with prepared palms to assuage and phrases to encourage.

All courses had been there, to sympathize, to do something, mastering their very own emotions as they tried to console the victims. O! it was grand to see the center of this group stirred to its inmost depths. The cloud had a silver lining; the sable pall was fringed with gold. Upon the deep again floor of this woe was painted an image of heroism and love upon which angels would possibly gaze with admiration….

How may these pricey women know that by the grinding of a wheel or the dropping of a shell, such dire calamity can be immediately introduced upon themselves. The opening of a bale of unusual merchandise let loose the ‘nice plague’ of London: the careless administration of somewhat fireplace in a small yard began the ‘nice fireplace’ of Pittsburgh. We’re so linked collectively; our lives or deaths rely a lot upon others, over whom now we have no management, that we must be all the time prepared. A carelessly ready prescription, a drunken captain or conductor, may fit hurt. Who may foretell what the firing of the primary gun at Fort Sumter would result in? It caused remotely, the disaster of Wednesday. And who can inform what extra it might deliver?

In conversing with so many dying individuals in so brief an area of time, their last phrases would naturally depart a deep impression. One as quickly as rescued, exclaimed, ‘Inform me actually, will I die?’ You’ll. ‘Then cowl me and take me out of the group.’ A number of cried frantically, ‘Ship for a priest.’ One declared that her solely hope was within the Mom of God. One other stated, ‘I die, however Jesus died for me; I’m secure.’ One from a distant city cried nearly unceasingly, ‘God have mercy on my poor depraved soul.’ One murmured indistinctly, what seemed like ‘Glory! glory!’ ‘My poor mom!’ ‘My poor youngsters!’ had been exclamations upon the lips of many. One ‘had achieved no hurt, and hoped that her struggling would atone for her sins.’ A mom stated, ‘I’ve labored for a residing for my youngsters, however, sir, if I dwell I’ll set them a greater instance. I’ll take them to your church. I’ve them baptized, however I ought to have achieved my obligation higher. God spare me to my youngsters.’ These remarks present the sentiments of individuals of various creeds. When close to to eternity, we should in deep agony lean upon one thing, both upon the Almighty God, by way of Jesus Christ our Lord, or upon a poor reed. One poor lady who escaped with fearful damage, appeared to overlook herself completely, and exclaimed frequently to herself, or others, ‘My poor companion! she perished within the flames: I attempted to save lots of her, however couldn’t,’ Within the very midst of the terrible scene, an clever doctor stated, ‘I heard superb information simply as I left the town, however can hardly inform it right here; McClellan has defeated the rebels in Maryland, and can, no doubt, kill or seize all of them.’ Patriotism for a second lit the countenances of the bystanders with pleasure; however the smile was like a sudden gleam of sunshine throughout ruins. There was the fear from which such tidings as this might not divert the thoughts. One other doctor exclaimed, ‘I used to be all alongside the Chickahominy throughout the battles, however was not affected as I’m right here—so surprising—so horrible—and the victims, poor women—the impossibility of even relieving them,’ pointing to some dozen blackened, quivering stays. Those that noticed the sight can always remember it….


Iron Metropolis Arsenal

Located simply outdoors the Pittsburgh metropolis limits within the borough of Lawrenceville, the Allegheny Arsenal was established in 1814 on 30 acres of land bought to the U.S. Ordnance Division by the borough’s founder, William B. Foster. The arsenal grounds had been bordered by thirty ninth and fortieth Streets, Penn Avenue, and the Allegheny River—the latter which related to the broader Ohio River and served as a serious freeway in transporting munitions, weapons, and provides westward. By 1860 the arsenal encompassed 38 acres and employed somewhat greater than 300 laborers; nonetheless, with conflict on the horizon, a bigger workforce was required.

The arsenal signal, above, now on the Heinz Historical past Heart, hung above the principle gate, as seen on the earlier web page. The large facility additionally produced or contracted with native tradesmen to make leather-based items just like the cavalry saddlebags at left. (Courtesy of the John Heinz Historical past Heart, Object 92.55.2; Pittsburgh Historic Maps Archive; Cowan’s Auctions, Dallas)

On the peak of the Civil Warfare, roughly 1,200 women and men reported for obligation on the arsenal. As reported by the location’s colonel of ordnance, John Symington, to the Ordnance Division on October 2, 1861, practically 200 male workers had been fired after “matches had been found among the many bundles of cartridges ready to be packed, in one of many rooms… I’ve discharged all of the boys at work in that portion of the laboratory, and can provide their locations with females…” From that time on, a majority of these employed on the laboratory had been girls drawn from the encircling group. With an environment friendly workforce in place, the laboratory’s day by day output of small arms ammunition reached roughly 30,000 rounds, along with subject artillery ordnance and numerous gear for the Union Military. Even after the devastating explosion on September 17, 1862, manufacturing continued by way of the top of the conflict and towards the top of the nineteenth century. However with the decreased demand for army provides after the conflict, the arsenal decreased manufacturing and, as said by the Pittsburgh Every day Put up in 1897, was “counted as among the finest storage locations within the nation for munitions of conflict.” The arsenal grounds decayed with the onset of the twentieth century, and by 1926 had been bought off to make method for city improvement in addition to a metropolis house for public use—the appropriately named Arsenal Park. Few buildings from the Allegheny Arsenal nonetheless stay, though reminders of the location’s previous are seen in sections of the park’s bordering wall, in addition to Powder Journal No. 2, which, though now a public restroom, is the one constructing current from the arsenal’s 1814 building. —R.C.

Ever because the deadly day, individuals have visited the Arsenal, both to inquire about the entire prevalence, or within the faint hope of studying one thing of their misplaced ones. Typically deeply affecting scenes are witnessed….

As quickly because the group recovered considerably from the gorgeous blow, arose the questions, How did it occur? Is anyone in charge? May it have been prevented? The efforts to reply these questions had been unparalleled within the historical past of this area. Public conferences and personal investigations—discussions by the press—a coroner’s jury, with wonderful perseverance and analysis—all mixed, calling for gentle. From the truth that nobody shrank from investigation, we most definitely imagine that nobody willfully dedicated the deed. However the street earlier than the constructing was stony. Powder was hauled in nice portions in wagons. Even powder barrels could also be leaky. The store was swept out—typically free powder among the many mud. Familiarity breeds contempt of hazard. All these are info. So it’s also true, that guests have been lengthy excluded from the outlets—that the laboratory was guarded by stringent guidelines. Respecting the residing—brokers and workers—we are saying not one phrase, besides that from the best to the bottom, we imagine each considered one of them completely incapable of doing the deed purposely. The inflexible examination will uncover what quantity of carelessness, or need of forethought, there existed, and decide the innocence or culpability of these in cost….”

The current memorial in Allegheny Cemetery to the explosion was erected in 1928, and replaced the one dedicated in 1863. It lists the names of all the victims of the tragedy. (Allegheny Cemetery)
The present memorial in Allegheny Cemetery to the explosion was erected in 1928, and changed the one devoted in 1863. It lists the names of all of the victims of the tragedy. (Allegheny Cemetery)

Among those that gathered in Allegheny Cemetery on Memorial Day 1889 was former Arsenal worker Laura Guinn, who misplaced her sister within the explosion and barely escaped together with her personal life. In an 1890 interview with the Pittsburgh Press, championing pension rights for survivors and relations, Guinn emphasised, “I can present as many scars from accidents obtained as any soldier who lived by way of the conflict.” Very similar to the Rev. Lea, Guinn stored the reminiscence of the departed alive by way of efforts of memorialization and recollection—an endeavor that was carried on into the the twentieth century. Following his dying in 1900, the Rev. Richard Lea’s stays had been laid to relaxation inside a brief distance of the arsenal memorial. On the age of 90, he was the oldest and longest-serving Presbyterian minister within the state of Pennsylvania. 

Western Pennsylvania native Wealthy Condon based and maintains the Civil Warfare Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania within the Civil Warfare blogs, and he works as an NPS ranger at Reconstruction Period Nationwide Historic Park.


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