Today, March 13, 2013 is a day of remembrance, for the Brown's Island munitions explosion on March 13, 1863, the worst wartime disaster in Richmond, killing more than 40 of its female workers. To commemorate the event, a historical marker is being placed today beside the island.
On Saturday, March 16, 2013, The 150th anniversary of the disaster will be commemorated with living history programs at The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, located at 470 Tredegar Street, Richmond, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The Explosion on Brown's Island
March 13, 1863 dawned much like today, with the difference being the Confederate States of America was at war. And at the Confederate States Laboratory on Brown’s Island, young girls, some as young as 11 years old, were busy filling friction primers, the devices used to ignite gunpowder inside a cannon.
Mary Ryan, an 18 year old Irish immigrant had considered herself lucky to get her job filling the friction primers. She knew it was very dangerous work because superintendent Captain Wesley N. Smith had reminded her of that very thing during his walk-through inspection earlier that morning.
Sometime between 11 a.m. and 12 noon, Mary picked up a wooden block of primers, but found they were stuck, and wouldn't dislodge. Not thinking, she banged the block against the workbench three times to break them loose. The third strike caused the primer to ignite, causing an explosion that sent her flying.
A second explosion followed the first that sent Mary up into the ceiling of the room. Unbelievably, the explosions and subsequent devastation and loss of life was confined to the one building. There were 50-60 young women working there, some at their jobs and a number standing around a coal-fired heater to keep warm.
The Confederate States Laboratory
The Confederate ammunition factory on Brown's Island employed several hundred people, most of them young girls. Women, and especially young women were wanted because of their nimble fingers. Their work assembling ammunition was vital to the war effort, and they knew the work was fraught with danger.
The ammunition laboratory was originally housed on 7th Street, not too far from the Tredegar Iron Works, overlooking the James River. The brainchild of Confederate ordnance chief Colonel Josiah Gorgas, the CSL made small arms and ammunition. A number of small explosions at the 7th Street plant raised a number of concerns for the citizens of Richmond, and the CSL was moved out to Browns Island.
The plant itself was not too much to look at, nothing more than six wooden buildings, each about 60 feet long and one-story in height. The workers turned out about 1,200 cartridges a day as well as manufacturing fuses, caps, fixed ammunition, signal rockets, grenades, and primers.
The worst industrial accident in this nation's history
Ammunition factory explosions were not isolated events in 1863. In the Confederacy, there had been several explosions at other munitions plants, one the previous fall in the Shenandoah Valley, one in Mississippi and one in Pennsylvania.
This particular industrial accident affected the citizenry of Richmond a great deal, perhaps because of the casualties being young girls, and perhaps because of the high number of lingering deaths that resulted.
There were several girls who died outright, but the majority of them took several days to a week or more to succumb to their injuries. Many suffered hideous burns and broken bones, along with internal injuries as a result of the blast effects from the explosions.
By the middle of summer, the disaster was all but forgotten. With the war still raging and the need to resupply the army uppermost in people's minds, there was little time for anything else. It had also been very easy to fill the vacancies left by the deaths of so many.
Reverend John Woodcock, a supervisor at the ammunition plant, was given a proper funeral and a headstone. The remainder of the victims, mostly poor immigrant's children, were buried in unmarked pauper's graves. The Reverand was one of only three make victims to die from the explosion.