The Allegheny Arsenal Explosion: A Forgotten Tragedy

By: Emily Masters

Overshadowed by some 20,000 casualties at the Battle of Antietam[1], the victims of the Allegheny Arsenal explosion are seldom remembered today. Though 78 lives lost may pale in comparison to the death toll in Sharpsburg that day, September 17th 1862 was the bloodiest day of the Civil War for soldiers and civilians alike. While the human sacrifice at Antietam is memorialized in monuments and sacred grounds that are visited and remembered every day, the site of the arsenal explosion is home to a pharmacy, an industrial park, and a neighborhood baseball field[2]. Unless you’re paying close attention, you could stroll through the site and never know what happened there 150 years ago. Almost entirely women and children, the sacrifice of the explosion’s victim have been largely left out of the grand narrative of the American Civil War.

The cause of the explosion has never been irrefutably confirmed but most sources agree that a horse pulling a delivery of black powder stamped its hoof down on the road newly covered in macadam causing a spark that ignited the powder on the streets.[3] The sparked carried to the powder kegs resulting in the explosion of the laboratory, which was full of women and young girls filling cartridges and canon shells. The same women and children who had assembled the ammunition that was being shot at rebel soldiers at Antietam on the very same day. Newspapers in the days following relayed reports from the front lines of battle at Antietam and Harper’s Ferry in detail, citing the names of officers killed in action and progress of ongoing skirmishes taking place around the country. [4] Most media coverage of the arsenal explosion was limited to a single paragraph and in some cases a single sentence.

“A terrible explosion occurred at the U.S. Arsenal at allegheny City on Wednesday afternoon, resulting in the death of between 75 and 100 people.” The Chicago Times[5] 

Local media coverage of the explosion held more detail and sentiment for the lives that were lost.[6] However, in the years following and up to present day, most accounts of that tragic event focus on the specifics. What blew up first? Who was in charge? Who was to blame? There are horribly detailed accounts of bodies charred and ripped apart and of the families struggling to identify their loved ones in the aftermath of the explosion[7]. It is difficult to discover stories about the victims themselves. They are identified collectively as mostly women and girls of poor working class families. A list of the names marks the mass grave in which the unidentified victims’ bodies were buried in Allegheny Cemetery[8]. The story of their lives however, has faded with the passing of those that remembered them. The story of the explosion itself has similarly faded from public consciousness. Few people today even know about Allegheny Arsenal explosion. Even the plaque erected by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission outside the site professes the importance of the arsenal in multiple wars but says nothing of the Civil War’s greatest civilian tragedy.[9]

Events such as the Allegheny Arsenal Explosion call into question the ways in which our nation remembers its history and how the topics worth remembering change with the passage of time. Though undeniably tragic, the explosion did not have much of a national effect. The arsenal resumed production shortly after. Is this why we don’t remember and learn about it today? Does the lack of national impact lessen the significance of the event? Perhaps on a national scale it does, but even at a local level the arsenal explosion has largely slipped from memory. Students learning about the Civil War all over the United States know that the Battle of Antietam resulted in the largest number of casualties suffered in any single day of the war but there are people playing baseball on the site of the greatest civilian tragedy without even realizing it.

Emily

[1] “Casualties of Battle,” National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/anti/historyculture/casualties.htm

[2] “Pittsburgh History: Tragedy at the Allegheny Arsenal” (Video), Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Jan 27, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ybFjlH7JMuw

[3] Charles McCollester, The Point of Pittsburgh: Production and Struggle at the Forks of the Ohio (Battle of Homestead Foundation: 2008), 89-93.

[4] The Connersville Weekly Times. September 18th, 1862 pg 2. http://access.newspaperarchive.com.proxy-iup.klnpa.org/us/indiana/connersville/connersville-weekly-times/1862/09-18/page-4?tag=connersville+weekly+times+september+18+1862&rtserp=tags/connersville-weekly-times-september-18,-1862?ndt=by&py=1860&pey=1869

[5] The Chicago Times quoted in Dawson’s Daily Times and Union. September 19th, 1862 pg 3. http://access.newspaperarchive.com.proxy-iup.klnpa.org/us/indiana/fort-wayne/dawsons-daily-times-and-union/1862/09-19/page-3?tag=allegheny+arsenal+explosion&rtserp=tags/allegheny-arsenal-explosion?page=2&ndt=by&py=1860&pey=1869

[6] Immediate Reaction, Allegheny Arsenal Exhibition, the National Archives at Philadelphia. http://www.archives.gov/philadelphia/exhibits/allegheny-arsenal/immediate-reaction.html

[7] Erasmus Wilson, Standard History of Pittsburg Pennsylvania (Chicago: H.R. Cornell & Company, 1898) 574.

[8] Tom and Nancy McAdams, “Allegheny Arsenal Monument,” (Updated: March 2008) http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~tandnmca/civilwar/alarsenal.html

[9]https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?gl=us&ie=UTF8&oe=UTF8&msa=0&msid=205601721542355622574.00044adc2ba8db27c6bf6&dg=feature&mid=1412551624

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