It was hot the morning of June 17, 1864. At the Washington Arsenal munitions were being made for the Civil War. Twenty-one young women, wearing the constrictive clothing of the time, dresses with high collars and hoop skirts, were sitting at a long table in what was called the choking room.
Their job was to put gunpowder in small paper tubes, then insert lead bullets into the powder-filled cylinders, then choking them off using a series of very small folds. This formed the small arms cartridges for Union army guns. Women were preferred for this job because they had slender fingers, they and were better able to pack the cartridges then men. It was work vital to the war effort.
The women were young. Mostly Irish immigrants. Some headed households since their husbands were off at war. They were poor and had to take whatever work was available, regardless the danger and brutal working conditions. No one was here by choice.
Outside of the building that day arsenal superintendent and fireworks expert Thomas Brown, someone who should have known better, set flares in metal pans to dry outside of the choking room. The sun heated the metal pans, and the flares went off. Sparks flew through an open window of the choking room igniting the gun powder.
The scene was horrific. Some women leapt from windows. Those who couldn’t die terribly. Eight bodies were unidentifiable.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sent the following order to arsenal commander:
The funeral and all the expenses incident to the internment of the sufferers by the recent catastrophe at the Arsenal will be paid by the Department. You will not spare any means to express the respect and sympathy of the Government for the deceased and their surviving friends.
President Lincoln and Secretary Stanton were among the mourners that crowded Congressional Cemetery three days later. Lincoln’s presences was not lost on those there. It was the first funeral he attended since burying his 11-year-old son, Willie
Seventeen of the women are buried below a monument funded by money donated by citizens. The statue on top was done by the Irish sculptor Lot Flannery. Its title is simply Grief.