The Arsenal Monument at Historic Congressional Cemetery

The Arsenal Monument at Historic Congressional Cemetery

The Arsenal Monument is a memorial to twenty-one women who died in an explosion at the Washington Arsenal on June 17, 1864.  It is located in the Historic Congressional Cemetery in southeast D.C. at 1801 E Street (MAP).

The massive explosion was caused when fireworks stored in the lot next to the Arsenal building spontaneously ignited in the near 100 degree heat of that hot June day.  This was a time before screened windows were common, and a spark flew into an open window and into the arsenal building where the women worked making gunpowder cartridges for the Union Army.  Most of the women were young; many were Irish, some were widows, but all were poor. Women held these jobs because 19th-century bureaucrats thought their small hands and dexterous fingers made this low-paid work more efficient. Exposed gunpowder caught fire and exploded, killing 21 of the 108 women cartridge makers who worked there.  Of those who died, 18 were burned to death in the explosion, and three more died in the ensuing panic.

The monument itself is comprised of a sculpted allegorical figure with folded hands representing grief, standing atop the monument’s tall shaft, and a realistic relief of the arsenal explosion carved into the base.  The monument lists all 21 of the women killed, and serves as the headstone for the mass grave located at the site.  However, six women, whose families preferred them to be buried separately from their fellow comrades, are in other locations both within Historic Congressional Cemetery and in D.C.’s Mount Olivet Cemetery.

Paid for by contributions from the public and erected only a year after the incident, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered the construction of the memorial.  He also ensured that the Federal government paid all the costs of the funerals for those who died in the explosion and fire.   At the dedication, President Abraham Lincoln led the cortege to the cemetery, followed by a band, 90 pall bearers and approximately 2,000 mourners.

  1. Another really interesting post. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Erin says:

    Thanks for remembering these women and the sacrifice they made.

    Liked by 1 person

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