Burton, David L. "Friday the 13th: Richmond's Great Home Front Disaster." Civil War Times Illustrated 21, No. 6 (Oct. 1982), pp. 36-41.
Friday the 13th
Richmond’s Great Homefront Disaster
By David L. Burton
Friday dawned much like many another dreary late winter Richmond day. It was morning in a proud river city grown too rapidly into the capital of an infant nation at war.
By this day, March 13, 1863, Richmonders had become accustomed to the ever-present Yankee menace. They had been outside and around their city for the past twenty-three months. But this fading winter had brought more trouble than even the most stouthearted cosmopolitan Virginian could have imagined. First, a smallpox epidemic had plagued residents, especially poorer ones. Then, in a city whose population had roughly tripled in three years’ time, there were the twin problems of inflation and critical food shortages, woes affecting the well-to-do as well as the not so well-to-do.
Alabama’s Confederate senator, Clement C. Clay, was alarmed. "A general gloom prevails here because of the scarcity and high price of food," he wrote to his wife from the Rebel capital. "...Really there is a serious apprehension of having to disband part of the army for want of food. In this city the poor clerks and subaltern military officers are threatened with starvation, as they cannot get board on their pay. God only knows what is to become of us."
Confederate War Department diarist John B. Jones put it this way: "The shadow of the gaunt form of famine is upon us!" And as bad as matters were, they would get worse. Richmonders had no way of knowing it, but in a week’s time they would be faced with the season’s worst snowstorm and the all-too-familiar sorrow over a fallen hero, this time the gallant John Pelham, artillerist extraordinaire.
As they went their ways on this Friday the 13th, Richmonders also had no way of knowing that before noon one of the struggling Confederacy’s worst homefront disasters would occur.
The first hint of tragedy was a dull, prolonged roar from the direction of Brown’s Island, a mound of dirt in the James River at the base of Seventh Street. The island, described two years earlier as a pretty little wilderness of bamboo and brush wood, had been transformed into a collection of one-story, frame buildings in which several hundred employees, most of them young girls, produced much of the ammunition that kept the Confederate army fighting.
The roar startled some Richmonders, but many, used to hearing explosions from the testing of ordnance at the nearby Tredegar Iron Works, paid scant attention. Several minutes later, dense smoke made townsfolk aware that something indeed was wrong. The telltale smoke came from the destruction of a department of the Confederate States Laboratory, an installation referred to in early 1863 as the salvation of the Confederacy.
"Terrible Laboratory Explosion on Brown’s Island - Between Forty and Fifty Killed and Wounded - Horrible Scenes" was how Richmond’s Daily Examiner summed up the event.
Within minutes of the explosion, pandemonium broke loose. "A tide of human beings, among them the frantic mothers and kindred of the employees in the Laboratory, immediately set towards the bridge leading to the island," the Examiner reported. However, authorities had already taken possession of the bridge and limited access to the island to rescue and medical workers.
The Examiner gave its account of the scene: "The apartment in which the explosion occurred, about fifty feet in length and twenty in width, was blown into a complete wreck, the roof lifted off, and the walls dashed out, the ruins falling upon the operatives, and the horrors of fire were threatened to be added to those of the explosion; but the flames were suppressed.
"While the male employees were laboring to rescue the helpless victims, the most heart-rending lamentations and cries issued from the ruins from sufferers rendered delirious from suffering and terror. No sooner was one helpless, unrecognizable mass of humanity cared for and removed before the piteous appeals of another would invoke the energy of the rescuers. Some ten to twenty were taken from the ruins dead, and from twenty to thirty still alive, but suffering the most terrible agonies, blind from burns, with their hair burned from their heads, and the clothes hanging in burning shreds about their persons. Others less injured ran wailing frantically, and rushing wildly into the nearest arms for succor and relief. Mothers rushed about, throwing themselves upon the corpses of the dead, and the persons of the wounded.
"The immediate treatment of the burned consisted in removing their clothing and covering the body thickly with flour and cotton, saturated with oil; chloroform was all administered. The sufferings of the wounded were alleviated by these means in the interval between their rescue and removal to their homes, or General Hospital No. 2, where many were taken. The returning ambulances carrying the sufferers were besieged by the friends and relations of the employees, and children clamored into the vehicles crying bitterly in their search after sisters and brothers. The distress among friends was aggravated by the fact that it was utterly impossible to recognize many of the wounded on account of their disfigurement, except by bits of clothing, shoes.
"From an officer connected with the Laboratory we learn that the department destroyed was in charge of Mr. McCarthy, superintendent. The condemned cartridges were here broken by the girls [the laboratory’s employees], and distributed, the bullets into one recepticle and the powder into another. It is surmised that a percussion cap containing fulminating ingredients got mixed in with the powder and created an explosion. Fortunately, there was but a small quantity of powder in the department, or the greater force of the explosion would have extended the ignition to the next department."
As tragic as the explosion appeared at the time, the magnitude of the human disaster soon became more apparent. By Saturday night, twenty-nine persons had died, and more deaths appeared certain. Then on Sunday, shaken Richmonders could see funeral corteges moving in numerous directions through the city, in several instances encountering each other as they wound their ways to the same cemetery.
Eventually, at least forty-five of the sixty-eight explosion casualties died. However, because of the incomplete nature of newspapers of the time and Richmond cemetery records, establishing a precise death toll was not possible. Many of the dead were young girls caught up in a war they could hardly hope to understand.
By the Monday after the explosion, additional details of the human agony had emerged. A 15-year-old boy had been wedged between a wall and some timbers, and axes were used to free him. Burned horribly and suffering from a broken skull, the boy lived until Wednesday.
Several girls whose clothes were on fire had run from the debris and plunged into the river. "All are thought to have come out, save one — Martha Burley, who is missing and is supposed to have drowned by accident or voluntarily in her crazed state of mind," the Examiner reported.
A hero also had come to light. One girl, her clothes in flames, had run toward another laboratory building in which a large quantity of gunpowder and combustibles were kept. A male employee grabbed her just before she reached the threshold. Witnesses said his actions saved numerous lives and worse damage.
Even though they had become accustomed to the horrors of war, Richmonders were appalled by the laboratory tragedy. "Today a great calamity occurred in this city," Jones of the War Department wrote in his diary for March 13. "In a large room of one of the government laboratories an explosion took place, killing instantly five or six persons, and wounding, it is feared fatally, some thirty others. Most of them were little indigent girls!"
Perhaps no one was more shocked than Colonel Josiah Gorgas, the industrious Pennsylvanian who, as the Confederates’ chief of ordnance, was responsible for supplying ammunition for the Confederate army. "A fearful accident occurred at our Laboratory here on Friday, the 13th of March," he wrote. After predicting that the death toll might reach fifty, Gorgas added: "It is terrible to think of—that so much suffering should arise from causes possibly within our control."
Gorgas knew what had become common knowledge in the capital; the tragedy had been caused by an 18-year-old girl, Mary Ryan.
The colonel wrote in his diary: "The accident was caused by the ignition of a friction primer in the hands of a grown girl by the name of Mary Ryan. She . . .gave a clear account of the circumstances. The primer stuck in the varnishing hoard and she struck the board three times very hard on the table to drive out the primer. She says she was immediately blown up to the ceiling and on coming down was again blown up."
Ryan, a native of Ireland, suffered with her injuries until the Monday after the explosion. She died at her father’s home on Oregon Hill, a residential area within a mile of the laboratory.
Gorgas, a man to whom strict safety precautions were an almost sacred subject, ordered a thorough investigation of the explosion. So a three-officer board conducted a probe and produced a report. Dated March 25, 1863, it presented an interesting look at operations in a facility in which young girls were pressed into the service of a country struggling for independence.
Captain Wesley N. Smith, superintendent of the laboratory, was in his office across from the island when the explosion occurred. He arrived at the scene within two minutes.
Fifteen or twenty minutes earlier, while making a routine inspection of the works, he had cautioned Miss Ryan about the dangerous work she was doing—filling friction primers, the highly explosive devices used to ignite gunpowder in large field pieces. Smith told the investigating board his warning was not prompted by any carelessness on the part of Ryan, but was in keeping with his habit of enforcing caution upon the laboratory employees.
At the end of the table at which Ryan was working, two or three employees were filling cartridges, and at the lower part of the room was a coal-burning stove. At another table in the room, a number of girls were breaking up condemned cartridges, and also in the room several employees were boxing percussion caps and friction primers. This latter work had been transferred from its normal site while that building was being enlarged.
"Had this work been going on in a building devoted to that purpose exclusively, the bursting of a primer might have been fatal to the individual handling it but could not have caused such general destruction of life," the investigating board quoted Smith as having said. "It was never intended that any explosive materials should be placed in a room where a stove was used."
Philip Smith, the employees’ timekeeper on the island, said he was standing in Main Street at the time of the explosion and hurried to the scene. He was told by one of the wounded the captain had cautioned Mary Ryan earlier that morning. Smith went to see her immediately. She "admitted to him that the explosion had been caused by the bursting of a friction primer which she was trying to remove from the board or form in which it was placed and that in doing so she had rapped the end of the board against the table," the investigators said.
Lizzie Dawson, interviewed while a hospital patient, said she was seated at the same table as Mary Ryan and was breaking up cartridges. From about three feet away, she saw her strike the board against - another board. She said she was positive about the cause of the explosion.
Another of the injured, Mary Cordle, had just emptied a box of powder when the explosion occurred. She said she had seen Mary Ryan previously rapping the board containing primers against the work bench,
Overall, the report indicated many safety precautions were adhered to in the laboratory and that Captain Smith and others made frequent inspections of the shops. But witnesses said they had seen Mary Ryan strike the board containing friction primers on work benches before. The question remained as to why this practice had not been halted.
Richmond rallied to assist the stricken. The city’s mayor, Joseph Mayo, asked the Young Men’s Christian Association to aid in raising funds for the relief of the sufferers and their families. A committee was appointed to solicit contributions, and employees of the Richmond Arsenal and Laboratory pitched in. And the proprietors of two Richmond theaters donated the proceeds of a night’s entertainment to the cause.
Although no record apparently exists of the amount of donations, Richmonders responded liberally.
Gorgas’ wife was active. "Mamma has been untiring in aiding, visiting and relieving these poor sufferers and has fatigued herself very much," he confided in his diary. "She has done an infinite deal of good to these poor people."
Arms-bearing men were touched. Prompted by the mayor’s appeal to Richmonders, one soldier wrote to the Richmond Sentinel. "A non-resident of the city, I beg to appeal to all humane people in the city and the State, to contribute to so laudable a purpose. The poor wounded creatures are young females who were dependent on their daily labor for their support. I send you five dollars and am only sorry I cannot afford more."
The Sentinel turned the donation over to the mayor and welcomed similar contributions.
For several weeks, reminders of the calamity cropped up. On April 10, Martha Clemmons, age 25, who was injured in the explosion and then caught smallpox, was buried. The next day, the body of the missing laboratory employee, Miss Burley, was pulled from the James River and turned over to friends for burial.
Ironically, the laboratory had enjoyed a good reputation for safety before the explosion. In early January 1863, the Richmond Enquirer had reported on a tour of the laboratory departments and given a glimpse of the history of the facility.
Captain Smith had founded the laboratory after his arrival in Richmond in early 1861. He had employed a small number of workers, trained them and, as necessary, hired others.
Initially, the laboratory operated in tobacco factory buildings near the James. Later, Brown’s Island had been cleared and the needed buildings were constructed. There, in departments occupied by the females, cartridges, fuses, percussion caps, primers, and rockets were turned out. It was estimated these girls, nine to twenty years old, made an average of 1,200 cartridges per day.
Addressing the issue of safety, the Enquirer reported: "Very few accidents have occurred at the Laboratory since its establishment — much fewer, indeed, than might reasonably have been expected where so many raw hands have been recently employed. The establishment has been of inestimable service. . . . It is the general ordnance manufactory of the South."
The laboratory continued to serve the Confederate cause. And although the nearby arsenal, armory, and laboratory at Seventh and Canal streets burned in the evacuation fire of April 2 and 3, 1865, at least some of the Brown’s Island buildings survived to face an uncertain future in a fallen capital. But in late May 1863, those events were imponderable. By that time the laboratory was back in full operation, the destroyed works replaced, and numerous additions and safeguards implemented. The improvements made accidents almost impossible without great carelessness.
Reporting on the new arrangements a writer in the Examiner indulged in patriotic fancy. "Embowered in the deep shade of Brown’s Island, with its busy colony of female operatives the laboratory works are well worthy a visit. Here the delicate hands of the southern maiden put up the little packet of powder and bullet, the thicker finger and unerring aim of the southern soldier sends on its mission of death into the breast and brain of the invader."
"Among the names of the dead, it will be seen, is that of Rev. John H. Woodcock, a most worthy and exemplary citizen of Richmond."
With those words, - the Richmond Whig informed its readers of the death of the best-known victim of the Confederate States Laboratory explosion on Brown’s Island.
Mr. Woodcock, 63, a former teacher in a Richmond school, was in charge of the room in which the explosion occurred. Initially, he was not believed to have been wounded fatally, but his condition worsened rapidly the night of the explosion. He died early the next morning.
Aside from Mr. Woodcock and Mary Ryan, the 18-year-old girl to whose carelessness the explosion was attributed, little is known about the victims.
In fact, the list of dead appears to resemble more closely the results of a school accident than of an explosion in a facility that produced the ammunition of warfare.
Mr. Woodcock and Miss Ryan are buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery, in which such Confederate luminaries as President Jefferson Davis, Generals J.E.B. Stuart, Fitzhugh Lee, and J.H. Morgan, and Secretary of War James A. Seddon were later interred.
Other explosion victims buried in Hollywood are Mary Blessingham, 23; Eliza Willis, 10; Elizabeth Young, 33; Mary Archer, 12; Sarah Haney, age unknown; Annie Peddicord, age unknown; Marannie Garnett, 13;. Barbara A. Jackson, 16; Sarah Marshall, 67; Robert S. Chaple, 15; Elizabeth S. Moore, 15; Delia Clemens, 20; and Sarah Foster, 14. Total victims in Hollywood, 15.
In Shockoe, another of Richmond’s historic cemeteries, are buried these explosion victims: Alice Johnson, 12; Mary E. Valentine 14; Margaret Drustly, 16; Wilhelmina Defenback, 15; Mary Zerhum, 12; Anne E. Bolton, 14; Nannie Horan, 14; Virginia A. Mayer, 12; Virginia E. Page, 13; Mary Ellen Wallace, 12; Emma Virginia Blankenship; 15; Margaret Alexander. 15; Caroline Zietenheimer, 16; and Martha Clemmons, 25. Total victims there, 14, and possibly more. These cemetery records are not clear.
In Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond is buried James G. Currie, a young boy killed in the explosion.
Besides these, newspapers reported that the following persons were killed or injured fatally in the explosion: Mary O’Brien, Martha Burley (whose body was found in the James River), Martha Daly, Mrs. Ann Dodson, Julia A. Brannan, Mary Bowlin, Catherine McCarthy, Mary Zinginham, Mary Whitehurst, Maria Brien, Ella Smith, Annie Davis, Mary Cushing, Louisa Ricely, Ellen Sullivan, and Mary O'Conners.
A number of these victims probably were buried in St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Richmond. Also known as Bishop’s - Cemetery, St. Joseph’s was the burial place for Catholics in Richmond from 1858 until 1897, but the whereabouts of the burial records are unknown, according to officials of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond.
The total of dead used in the accompanying article—at least forty five—is based on newspaper articles and cemetery records and the official report of the investigation of the explosion. The report said forty-three persons had died, but at least two deaths occurred or were reported after the date of the report. That document does not list the killed and injured.
In cases of conflicting spellings of names between newspaper articles and cemetery records, the latter were given preference.