The Next Page: The Allegheny Arsenal explosion -- Pittsburgh's Civil War carnage
Catherine Burkhart's school days were behind her, assuming she had any schooling at all. At perhaps 15, she was a full-fledged member of the wartime work force. On the morning of Sept. 17, 1862, Catherine left the log house that she shared with her mother and set off for work at the Allegheny Arsenal. It was the best day of the month. Payday.
Butler Street was busy. President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was less than a week away. Chippewa and Sioux were of concern in Minnesota.
But Catherine would die that day, after lunch, around 2. She was joined by more than 70 other school-aged children, the overwhelming majority of them girls. They died from a spark of unknown origins. It ignited gunpowder, setting off a massive chain reaction of explosions.
Nearly twice as many workers were injured, many with agonizing burns. Others in distant buildings were injured in the ensuing panic, trying to escape through crowded wooden stairwells. Another, in the attempt to avoid the stairwells' bottleneck, broke her neck jumping from a window.
In the words of The Pittsburgh Gazette, it was "an appalling scene."
People poured out onto Penn Street and Liberty Street, running toward the disaster. Many were women and children, relatives of the Arsenal workers.
Where the heat was most intense, there was nothing but white bones in a heap. They had burned like pine logs.
A body does not survive 125,000 rounds of exploding ammunition, not to mention a couple hundred parrot-gun projectiles.
More than half of the dead girls were so badly charred, or otherwise disfigured, that they could not be identified.
Witnesses reported bodies bursting in air. A stray arm flew beyond the Arsenal's massive stone wall. A shoeless foot was found near the main gate. The ground was littered with body parts and smoldering shards of wood. The Gazette reported a brass tube impaled through the heart of one victim. Pre-skyscraper Downtown Pittsburgh shook from the explosion.
There were bitter tears of anguish from those who recognized the deceased or sought in vain for those who could never return.
Unlike the thousands of Americans who died the same day, including many from Pittsburgh, at the Battle of Antietam, Catherine had not signed up for some cause. Her only cause was to help her widow mother pay the rent. Her only agenda was to make ends meet.
Just as Antietam would prove the costliest day in military dead, the Arsenal explosion would produce the largest civilian death tally in the American Civil War.
They were no Halliburton or Blackwater types. They were mostly small, nimble-fingered children. "Working Girl" would take on a jaded connotation in later years, in reference to the oldest profession. But the reality of 1860s Pittsburgh, already an industrial and manufacturing giant, was that children worked like adults. They worked regardless of gender, often in crowded and dangerous conditions.
The onset of the Civil War drove prices skyward. Workers demanded higher wages. There were many violent strikes in mills, mines and manufactories. People's patriotism was in question. The workplace was often as dangerous as the front lines.
In a cruel Iron City irony, girls had only recently replaced boys on the munitions work force. Boys could be tobacco smokers and were sometimes careless with matches. Boys could also be used to swell the union ranks.
Even by Pittsburgh standards, the Arsenal was a large producer. It made more than explosives. It manufactured other necessities of war, such as spurs and stirrups, lariats, saddle bags and curry combs for horses.
A few blocks away in the Strip District, the Fort Pitt Cannon Foundry produced a variety of cannons, including the world's largest. They produced at a rate the world had never known, a rate which the confederates could not conceive. From Pittsburgh came steamships and freight cars of coal, clothing, cattle and hogs. Locomotives built of Pittsburgh steel constantly rolled out of the city. By war's end, 10 million pounds of explosives, shots and shells left the Fort Pitt Cannon Foundry for war.
Pittsburgh also exported profound numbers of men. Between 1861 and 1865, 24,000 Allegheny County residents joined the Union Army. Some were drafted, most were volunteers.
Throughout the Union and Confederacy on Sept. 18, 1862, front-page news was the Battle of Antietam. But not in Pittsburgh.
The trees on the morning of Sept. 17 were full of hues of oncoming autumn. By evening they were shaded with the colors of scorched hoopskirt fragments.
It was a hell of a payday.
Allegheny Cemetery donated a parcel of land for a mass burial pit. It was out of sight of prominent Pittsburgh burial plots, belonging to families who were making handsome profits from the war. Thirty-nine black, federal government-issued coffins containing bodies and body parcels were buried in the pit, Section 17.
"By this terrible calamity all are of the poorer classes" wrote the Gazette. "A fund should at once be raised for their relief."
Certainly Catherine's mother was counting on her coming home, coming home with money.
Mr. J.H Miller had two daughters killed. Mrs. Gabby, a widow of 14 weeks, was killed. It was her second week on the job. Her husband John of the 102nd Regiment Company F was killed June 1 at the Battle of Fair Oaks. Ten-year-old Kate Dillon was killed as were Ellen and Mary Slattery, 16 and 18 respectively.
James Lindsey had two daughters killed. The widow Smith's son -- her main means of support -- was killed. "She became so ill from her misfortunes she's not expected to recover," the Gazette reported.
Eleven canister balls were found in one victim. In another, seven minie balls (a variety of bullet) were lodged.
It's difficult to comprehend but canister and minie balls were picked up and carried off by curiousity hunters.
Three men were charged with being grossly negligent in the explosion. Arsenal Commander John Symington went on sick leave and retired the following summer. He died before the war's end, his sterling 45-year military career, like Arsenal, blown to pieces.
Symington's subordinate, Lt. John Edie, would die a decade later, in a government-run insane asylum.
Also charged was the Arsenal's laboratory superintendant, Alexander McBride. McBride's own daughter, 15-year-old Kate, was among those killed. McBride's sworn testimony was heartbreaking. He had to try and take control of mayhem. All that hadn't blown up or burned needed to be guarded. He ran around throwing buckets of water on burning screaming people. All the while, he was a father desperately concerned for his daughter.
He came across Annie Shook and Anna Sibley, burned and naked, crying as they tried to dig their way under a wooden fence. They pleaded for help. Pleaded for clothing.
Catherine's brother Joseph, four years her senior, had enlisted in the Union Army one week prior to the explosion. He was mustered out in Harrisburg one week afterwards. His mother needed him. Joseph would re-enlist in the Army six weeks after coming home. In 1887 he applied for a soldier's pension. By the time of the 1870 Census, mother was gone.
Even before the first of the six dozen dead were buried, The Pittsburgh Gazette made it abundantly clear that lest bodies "abroad" should misapprehend the facts, the Arsenal -- with its immense shops, stores and munitions -- would experience but a slight interruption to its business.
Alexander McBride lived a life of seclusion after the explosion. But, in the late 1890s he met with 300 former employees to sign a petition demanding that Congress award $30,000 to be split among victims and families. Nearly 40 years had passed without compensation. It's highly doubtful James Lindsey or the Widow Smith would have been around to share.
Regardless, Congress did not oblige. Money was needed to finance the Spanish-American War. Most of Pittsburgh quickly put the Arsenal explosion behind them. After all, there was a war going on. There was work to be done.
First Published September 12, 2010 12:00 am