History: September 17, 1862: Worst Civilian Disaster of the US Civil War

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A Brief History

On September 17, 1862, the same day that the bloodiest 1 day battle in American military history was fought (Antietam, or Sharpsburg) the civilian population of suburban Pittsburgh was touched by the worst civilian disaster of the Civil War when the Allegheny Arsenal blew up, killing 78 workers, mainly women (down to 15 years old).

Digging Deeper

A cartridge making industrial plant, the Allegheny Arsenal employed over a thousand workers and supplied the Union forces fighting in the Western half of the conflict.  Cartridges at the time consisted of greased paper containing a charge of black powder and either a musket ball or a bullet (Minie ball).  Soldiers would rip the paper with their teeth, pour the pre-measured charge into the bore of their rifle or musket, then place the bullet or ball in the bore and ram it all down with the ramrod.

Gunpowder was shipped to the Arsenal from Dupont and Company in wooden barrels, which were returned to the company for reuse.  This became an issue later when accusations that leaky, defective barrels were responsible for spreading dangerous amounts of gunpowder over the area.

No definitive cause of the massive explosions, heard miles away, could be determined, though it was posited that the metal horseshoe on a horse caused a spark on the stone road that ignited powder in the street that followed a path of other loose powder up to the main lab where the first giant explosion took place, followed soon after by a second blast, and then a third.  Among the dead, 54 of the bodies were so mutilated they could not be identified.

Investigation (Coroner’s inquest) initially blamed the Arsenal commander and his officers, but reinvestigation (military inquiry) found no particular person or reason at fault. The Arsenal commander, a Col. Symington, was retired a few months after the incident.

Accidental explosions of military ordnance is not uncommon, with catastrophic results as explosives have grown more powerful.  Incidents in the US during World War II resulted in (not surprisingly!) problems with the labor force handling the explosives.  The Soviets suffered a massive series of fires and explosions at Severomorsk over a 4 day period in 1984, killing as many as 300, and wounding an unknown number more.  Alfred Nobel, he of the Nobel Prize fame and inventor of Dynamite, lost a brother and several workers in 1864 in an explosion at his factory.  Despite mighty efforts to prevent such accidents, they have occurred throughout history and continue to occur.

Would you be willing to work at a gunpowder or explosives factory?  What would it take to get you to agree to work at such a place?

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Historical Evidence

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.