The Washington Arsenal's Explosive History

While little private manufacturing took root in Washington in the early 19th century—much to the disappointment of early developers—government industry was another story. The federal government ran major manufacturing facilities, most notably the shipbuilding and munitions activities at the Navy Yard, which helped to grow a thriving community on Capitol Hill in the early 1800s. Another vital government industrial activity was the production of army munitions at the Washington Arsenal, located at Greenleaf's Point, where the Anacostia and Potomac rivers meet (now Fort Lesley J. McNair). A significant portion of the army's cannons, bullet cartridges, and bombs were assembled here, and it was every bit as dangerous an operation as it sounds.

Undated drawing of the Washington Arsenal (author's collection).

Earthen fortifications were constructed on this strategic point of land as early as 1791, making this one of the country's first permanent military installations. At some point in the early 1800s, an arsenal opened here. George Hadfield (1763-1826) was the architect of the arsenal's first permanent building, which was completed in about 1803. Hadfield was responsible for many of Washington's early official buildings, including the old City Hall, the original executive office buildings that surrounded the White House, and the Arlington House mansion that would later be the home of Robert E. Lee. Hadfield designed a suite of buildings for the arsenal, including a central office building, several workshops, a gun lot, and a parade ground.

Detail of the original fortifications on Greenleaf's point, from Andrew Ellicott's 1792 map of L'Enfant's plan for Washington (Library of Congress). 
The arsenal served primarily as a final assembly point for guns and other munitions. According to historian Wilhelmus Bryan, "To the Washington Arsenal were brought as a distributing center guns from the Government manufactories at Harpers Ferry and Springfield and cannon from the Foxall foundry, near Georgetown, as well as armament that had seen service. Men were employed to mend and clean guns and to provide fittings and carriages for the cannon." In addition to assembling cannons and other ordnance, the arsenal also manufactured ammunition.

British Invaders Experience a Setback

In August 1814, as the British approached Washington bent on destruction, the arsenal was a sizable storehouse of arms and ammunition. Its defenses were all aimed out at the river, however. Meanwhile, the British circled around and attacked Washington by land, invading via the Bladensburg Road from Maryland. While naval officers blew up the nearby Washington Navy Yard to prevent it from falling into enemy hands, the evacuation of the arsenal was less organized. Panicked officials moved some of its cannon and muskets to Alexandria and upriver to Georgetown for safekeeping, but much was left behind for the British to seize when they arrived at the abandoned facility on August 25. The soldiers proceeded to systematically destroy the buildings and munitions, spiking cannon barrels and throwing them into the Potomac.

They also discovered about 130 barrels of gunpowder stored in a magazine and apparently made the ill-advised decision to throw the barrels one-by-one down a well. Did they think the dampness of the well would neutralize the powder? It didn't. Instead, a massive explosion erupted, blasting a 40-foot crater in the earth, killing 30 soldiers, and seriously wounding another 47. Historian Anthony S. Pitch describes the scene: "A stunned officer heard the wail of the dying and saw others almost buried alive, their broken arms and legs askew and severed limbs lying haphazardly in and around the crater.... Burning buildings were flattened and roofs torn off others. Huge clods of soil were flung high in the air..." It was a far worse setback for the British than any losses they suffered fighting the city's defenders.

More Explosions

Although the British destroyed the arsenal, it was soon rebuilt. The deadly mishap turned out to be a harbinger of many more to come. A brief notice in the The Baltimore Sun in 1845 summarized a typical Arsenal accident: "An explosion took place at the U.S. Arsenal, Washington, D.C., this afternoon about half past six o'clock. A man named Albert E. Irving was killed while preparing percussion powder for small arms. The building was shattered to pieces." Similarly, in 1847 a "German laborer named Ehring" was "blown up" in the Arsenal's laboratory. The next year, "Adam Alburger, pyrotechnist" was "dreadfully injured" in a laboratory explosion, and "no hope was entertained of the poor man's recovery." In each instance, the laboratory building was "completely unroofed and almost demolished." However, it seems that little was done to reassess the safety of the facility or slow production of explosives.

The Washington Arsenal in 1856 (author's collection - click to enlarge).
A correspondent from the Sun visited the arsenal in 1846 and wrote vividly of the perils its workers faced: "As I stepped into the laboratory for a moment, all the horrors of a sudden death, fractured skulls, broken limbs, etc., rushed before my imagination, and I hastily retreated, well convinced that men who worked there ten hours each day [making artillery shells] should be well paid for their services in life..." In an adjoining building he discovered "about sixty fine-looking boys employed in making [small arms] cartridges." The reporter admired the boys' deftness, speed, and enthusiasm in assembling the cartridges, all destined for the battlefields of the Mexican-American War. "Late in June one thousand eighteen-inch shells were forwarded from this depot to our forces in Mexico," he concluded, estimating that an additional two million small-arms cartridges had also been sent, with many more to follow.

The District Penitentiary and Arsenal Expansion

After numerous complaints about the poor physical condition of the buildings, Congress voted funds in 1857 for rehabilitation and construction of additional buildings and to extend the arsenal grounds north to P Street SW (which remains the northern limit of Fort McNair today). At this point the arsenal grounds encompassed the much smaller District of Columbia penitentiary, which had been constructed just north of the original arsenal grounds in 1831. The penitentiary, designed by Charles Bullfinch (1763-1844), included a large prison building capable of holding 160 inmates, an administrative building, a hospital, and an exercise yard, all enclosed within a 20-foot-high brick wall with a catwalk on top for the prison guards. Prisoners spent their time here making shoes, brooms, and other everyday items. The penitentiary was a separate federal institution not run by the Army or connected with the arsenal.

Detail of an 1861 map showing the layout of the Washington Arsenal and the District Penitentiary (Source: Library of Congress).
The Washington Arsenal was one of only three in the country (the two others were in New York and Pennsylvania); it was tasked with supplying ordnance to all military forces in the southern part of the country. The Evening Star remarked in 1857 that it was "the completest manufacturing establishment of the kind belonging to the Government of the United States." And the pace of production only increased with the advent of the Civil War. Historian Kenneth J. Winkle tells us that the arsenal produced "an artillery battery of six to twelve cannons every week, and every day turned out 100,000 minie cartridges, 36,000 minie balls [bullets], and hundreds of cannon shot, shells, and grape [shrapnel] canisters."

Finished artillery pieces on the Arsenal grounds during the Civil War. In the background is the model Arsenal building. (Source: Library of Congress).

A Terrible Tragedy

More accidents occurred. A powder explosion in April 1862 wounded "six or eight" workers, but none were killed. The following year a much more serious incident was reported. Army field commanders had returned a number of artillery shells to arsenal because of defective fuzes. One workman, encountered a worn-out fuze that could not be wrenched out in the usual way, decided to try to chisel it out. In the ensuing explosion, two men were instantly killed and three others seriously injured, including a father and his son.

Hundreds of cannon barrels wait to be fitted on to carriages at the Washington Arsenal during the Civil War (author's collection).
Then came the arsenal's most infamous tragedy. As bodied men had gone off to war, young women had replaced them making small arms cartridges. On June 17, 1864—the same day that the new national military cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, was opened—108 young women were making cartridges in the arsenal's main laboratory. Meanwhile, the hot, noonday sun beat down on several pans of newly-made "star" flares that had been set out to dry just outside the building. At 11:50 a.m., the flares ignited in a chain reaction, and one of them flew in an open window and set off the gunpowder that the girls were using. A powerful explosion blew the roof a foot off the laboratory and quickly turned it into a blazing inferno.

Those killed by the initial blast suffered less than the many who struggled to escape the burning building. The Evening Star reported that the fire spread rapidly, "blinding the girls and setting fire to their clothes. Many of them ran to the windows wrapped in flames, and on their way communicated the fire to the dresses of others." A chaotic scene ensued. "Relatives and friends of parties employed at the Arsenal were rushing to and fro inquiring anxiously after those who were near and dear to them; while the firemen and soldiers were actively engaged in subduing the flames and removing the charred remains of those who perished in the ruins." Seventeen bodies were taken from the ruins, but "they were so completely burnt to a crisp that recognition was impossible." Another six victims died later from burns. The last of them, 31-year-old Pinkey Scott, a widowed mother of two, finally died on July 4, an agonizing 17 days after being burned.


As Brian Bergin explains in his excellent book, The Washington Arsenal Explosion: Civil War Disaster in the Capital, the horrific incident was particularly heartbreaking for a city that had already endured three years of brutal war casualties, thousands of which passed through Washington on an almost daily basis. The victims of the Arsenal accident were all women—young residents of Southwest Washington, a poor neighborhood of mostly Irish and other immigrants. They had suffered horrific deaths through the explosion and fire. On the Sunday after the explosion, more than a thousand mourners from across the city gathered at the Arsenal for a procession down Pennsylvania Avenue to Congressional Cemetery, where most of the victims were to be buried. President Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton were in attendance. Afterward, a tall monument was erected on the burial site to mark the tragedy.

The Arsenal Monument in Congressional Cemetery, circa 1913 (Source: Library of Congress).

Still More Mishaps

In 1863, the District penitentiary (by that point surrounded by the Arsenal grounds) had quietly been closed and its most dangerous inmates transferred to a penitentiary in upstate New York. The old penitentiary buildings were turned over to the army to add to the expanded arsenal. It was in one of the old penitentiary buildings (part of which still stands) that a military tribunal tried the Lincoln conspirators in 1865 and had four of them executed outside in the former penitentiary exercise yard.

View of the penitentiary building and the scaffold used for the hangings. Only the eastern (right) end of the building still survives, in a much-altered state. (Source: Library of Congress).
After the war ended, the arsenal's pace slowed. More than 1,000 workers had been on hand at the height of the conflict, but by December 1865, there were just 150, and these were almost all war veterans, many of them Irish Americans. Their major task was dismantling ordnance left over from the war, a task at least as dangerous as assembling cartridges had been. That month, ten men were killed in yet another explosion. "The terrible scene, immediately after the explosion, was only equaled by the scene at the explosion in June 1864, some of the corpses being burned, blackened, and torn so as to expose the entrails, and none being recognizable from the features," according to the Star. The coroner's inquest concluded the incident occurred when a box of old ammunition was being taken off a cart and slipped to the ground. The boxes, delivered from decommissioned fortifications, often contained loose caps and friction primers, which could easily ignite.

More accidents occurred, including the massive explosion of one of the munitions storehouses in July 1871, a blast that could be felt as far away as Alexandria. Fortunately, no one was killed, as the explosion occurred at 3 in the morning when the building was empty. The powerful explosion smashed windows and blew doors off hinges throughout the arsenal. In a sergeant's house nearby, a bed with two children in it was completely overturned—the kids weren't hurt. Similarly, as a Mrs. Heningsey and her two children were sleeping in another nearby house, the blast sent a brick flying through the window and "knocked two knobs from the posts of the bed." The door to the bedroom "was driven square through the hall." Mrs. Heningsey suffered cuts from broken glass but escaped major injury, as did her children. Firemen bravely battled the flames of several burning buildings throughout the early morning hours, standing their ground amidst "a number of explosions from shell, and loaded muskets, and at time the rattle of small arms and the bursting of bombs...," as The Evening Star reported.

Several storehouses were ruined, including one that had a military museum on its top floor. The Star noted that among the museum's losses were "many relics of the military art in ancient and modern times, including ancient weapons of warfare, armor of the middle ages, shot and shell, and colors from our Revolutionary war, and specimens of uniforms and arms of almost every nation of the past and present, forming a collection which can never be replaced."

Transitions

By the time of the 1871 explosion, the arsenal's manufacturing operations were already declining and they would continue to do so. By the late 1870s only about 20 ordnance workers were still on duty. Congress proposed closing the arsenal and selling off the land. According to The Washington Post, retired General Montgomery Meigs, who had served as Quartermaster General during the Civil War, objected to the sale of the property. "If you sell it you will only get a few thousand dollars for it," he argued, "and when you need the ground, as you will in time, you will have to pay a round million for it." Congress wisely took the general's advice. The arsenal closed in 1881, but the army retained the property and rechristened it the Washington Barracks, a collection of quiet dormitories that contrasted dramatically with the arsenal's legacy of death and destruction.

Postcard view, from the west, of what is now called Grant Hall, part of the old penitentiary building where the Lincoln conspirators were tried (author's collection).

Grant Hall as seen today from the southeast. (photo by the author).
Many of the old arsenal buildings were demolished or extensively remodeled into dormitories and for other uses. From 1898 to 1909, an army hospital was located here, the predecessor of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In 1901, the Washington Barracks became the army's training center for senior officers. The army commissioned the prestigious architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White to redesign the site as an academic campus. Charles McKim (1847-1909) designed that grand Army War College (now the National War College) building that stands at the southern end of the property and the stately Colonial Revival residences, known as Generals' Row, that line the Potomac side of the site. McKim's plan called for all previous structures to be razed, and most were, with just a few exceptions. One was the east wing of the old penitentiary building, which had been reconstructed as a standalone building after most of the original structure was torn down. It is speculated that this building may have been saved because the trial of the Lincoln conspirators was held here on the third floor. Also saved was a single building from the old arsenal, the so-called Model Arsenal, where scale models of artillery pieces had been put on display in days gone by.

The Model Arsenal, the only building remaining from the old Washington Arsenal (photo by the author).

Renamed Fort Leslie J. McNair in 1948, the campus now hosts the National Defense University (including the National War College and the Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy) and the Inter-American Defense College. While generally closed to the public, Fort McNair hosts a quarterly open house for visitors to see the reconstructed courtroom where the trial of the Lincoln conspirators was held.

Charles McKim's Army War College building, completed in 1907 (photo by the author).
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Sources for this article included Brian Bergin and Erin Bergin Voorheis, The Washington Arsenal Explosion: Civil War Disaster in the Capital (2012); Noah Brooks, Washington in Lincoln's Time (1958 reprint); Wilhelmus Bogart Bryan, A History of the National Capital (1914); Ernest B. Furgurson, Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War (2004); Lucinda Prout Janke, A Guide to Civil War Washington: The Capital of the Union (2013); Julia King, George Hadfield: Architect of the Federal City (2014); Brian Kraft, "Old Southwest: A History of a Vanished Neighborhood" (2006); John Michael, Fort Lesley J. McNair (2015); Anthony S. Pitch, The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814 (1998); David K. Sullivan, "Behind Prison Walls: The Operation of the District Penitentiary, 1831-1862" in Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C., Vol. 71/72 (1972); Hayden M. Wetzel, "Buzzard Point, DC: A Brief History of a Brief Neighborhood" (2014); Kenneth J. Winkle, Lincoln's Citadel: The Civil War in Washington, DC (2013); and numerous newspaper articles.

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  1. Great article. Well researched and interesting pictures. I learned something new.

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