Brown’s Island Victims

The worst war-time disaster to strike the Confederate home front occurred on March 13, 1863. An explosion rocked the Confederate Laboratory on Brown’s Island in the James River, in the heart of Richmond, Virginia.

My research indicates that ten were killed instantly, with 58 wounded. The majority of the victims were females, and most were teenagers. This workforce was stepping into the void when males entered the military. It was also a way to help their struggling families as the economy worsened.

The Laboratory was an important part of the Confederate war effort, sitting amid an industrial area that manufactured weapons and military supplies. Employing about 600 workers, half of them female, the facility manufactured percussion caps for rifles and fuses for artillery shells. Small arms cartridges were produced and repaired, as well as artillery ammunition. Most workers made about one or two dollars a day, depending on their skill level and gender.

Brown’s Island (LoC)

In this particular building, which was one hundred by fifty feet, about 60 employees crowded into the space. Many were not working in this building, but had gathered to enjoy the warmth of the stove in one corner.

A variety of activities took place in this particular structure, including breaking open bad cartridges to be reused, sewing bags for artillery ammunition, and filling new cartridges. Loose powder was everywhere and boxes of cartridges were scattered around the room. None of these activities should have been done in the same space, and no unnecessary people should have been occupying it.

Mary Ryan, 19 years old, illiterate, and Irish-born, worked here. She had been previously corrected for being careless with her work. On this day she was working with artillery friction primers: brass tubes with explosive chemicals inside. Mary was working with a wooden block that held the primers, and removing them one by one. They sometimes got stuck, and in her frustration she wrapped the block on the table to loosen them. Between 11 o’clock and noon, a tremendous explosion ripped through the building.

Catherine Cavanaugh was sweeping and circling behind the bench where Mary worked. Across the room, Mary Cunningham witnessed Mary Ryan banging the block she was working with against the table.  In an instant, there was an explosion.

A witness recalled that the room was “blown into a complete wreck, the roof lifted off, and the walls dashed out, the ruins falling upon the occupants.” As the dust settled, “the most heart rendering lamentations and cries . . . from sufferers rendered delirious from suffering and terror.”

Known to have been killed instantly were 12-year old Alice Johnson and 17-year old Frances Blessingham. Others likely killed in the initial explosion were Eliza Willis (at 10, the youngest victim), Annie Peddicard, Anne Bolton (14), Wilhelmina Defenback (15), Margaret Drustly (16), Nannie Horan (14), Mary Valentine (14), and Mary Zerhum (12).

As word of the accident made its way through the city, a “tide of people” gathered at the footbridge leading to Brown’s Island. One account noted that “mothers rushed about, throwing themselves upon the corpses of the dead & the persons of the wounded.”

Every day for the next 11 days one of the victims died.

Some of the girls’ graves in Shockoe Cemetery (photo by author)

Immediately following the explosion, the dead bodies were kept on the island until the coroner could file his report. The wounded were taken just up the street to the nearest medical facility, which happened to be General Hospital #2.

The Confederate military had established about two dozen hospitals in the city by this time. General Hospital #2, also called Bailey’s Factory Hospital, was the former tobacco factory of S. W. Bailey and Company and was used as a hospital in 1861 and 1862.

The hospital was a brick, three storied, A-roofed building on the south side Cary Street at the southwest corner of 7th Street. It originally treated soldiers from Mississippi, and fortunately was nearly vacant at the time of the accident.

Not so fortunate was the fact that it was not an ideal place to treat the wounded. A prior inspection of the hospital noted, “The building is unsuitable and would have been vacated but for its convenience to the Canal & depots – It has for this reason been the receptacle for the worst cases.”

The victims who arrived here were “all dreadfully burned,” and included “George Chappell, Sarah Haney, Hannah Petticord, Ella Bennett, Mary Jenningham, Julia Brennan, and one other female – unable to give her name.” Of those Hannah and Julia would die from their wounds.

A newspaper article noted, “some had an arm or a leg divested of flesh & skin, others were bleeding w/ wounds received from the falling timbers or in the violent concussions against the floor and ceiling which ensued.” Treatment of burns at the time were often ineffective and painful.

The explosion immediately triggered an outpouring of support from the community. In the days that followed, over $2,000 was donated by staff of the Arsenal. Church services conducted the following Sunday, March 15, contributed another $2,500. Mayor Joseph Mayo organized a relief effort as well, and so did the YMCA.

A fundraising ball held at the city market raised money, and even soldiers from the front lines sent donations.

As the last two weeks of March went by, an investigation concluded that Mary Ryan had indeed caused the accident by her actions. The report noted, “The opinion of the Board based upon the evidence elicited is that the explosion was caused by the extremely careless handing of Friction Primers by the late Mary Ryan.”

And as March unfolded, the funerals occurred. A funeral was held at St. Peter’s Church for sisters Martha Daly (15) and Ann Daly Dodson (18). They were the only set of sister killed. With another set of sisters, Mary Zinginham was killed and but Caroline wounded and survived.

On Sunday the 15th, Anne Bolton (14), Wilhelmina Defenback (15), Margaret Drustly (16), Nannie Horan (14), Mary Valentine (14), and Mary Zerhum (12) were all buried in Shockoe Cemetery, north of downtown. Six funerals at the site in one day.

Mary Ryan passed away on the 15th at the home of a friend, Emily Timberlake. Mary was able to visit with friend and fellow victim Elizabeth Young (33), who also died of her injuries. Mary’s father Michael purchased a plot in Hollywood Cemetery and here he buried his daughter on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day.

Mary Ryan’s Grave, Hollywood Cemetery (photograph by author)

A bad snowstorm struck the city the next day on March 16, adding to the suffering of residents and wounded alike. But it didn’t stop the funerals.  Mary Roland (14), Virginia Page (13), and Mary Wallace (12) were all laid to rest that day, grave diggers plowing through the snow to reach the frozen earth. On the 18th, the disaster’s oldest victim, 67-year old Sarah Marshall, was buried at Hollywood Cemetery.

The funerals and burials continued nearly to the end of the month. On March 20 Emma Blankenship (15) was buried in Shockoe Cemetery. The next day Margaret Alexander (15) was laid to rest there. On the 22nd Elizabeth Moore (15) was buried in Hollywood Cemetery. On the 24th Bridget Grimes’ (13) funeral was held at her home and she was buried at Bishop’s Cemetery. That same day the explosion’s last victim died, Sarah Foster (14). On April 11, nearly a month later, the body of Martha Burley was found in the canal downriver from the Laboratory. She had been missing since the accident and it was supposed she had jumped into the water to extinguish the flames and drowned.

Despite popular memory, not all the victims were female. Fifteen-year old Robert Chaple had been wedged in the ruins of the frame walls, where his skull had been crushed. He died “after five days of terrible suffering” and “in great agony.” James Currie was 13 years old and died the night of the explosion. At 63-years old, Rev. John Woodcock was supervisor of the room where the accident occurred. He was initially thought to be recovering well at home but died 4 a.m. the next morning. He was an Elder at Trinity Methodist Church on Broad Street and the Richmond Sentinel described him as “a most exemplary man in all the relations of life.”

Colonel Josiah Gorgas, Chief of Ordinance for the Confederacy, noted, “it is terrible to think of it- that so much suffering should arise from causes possibly within our control.” In total I have identified 50 as killed, with another 14 wounded who survived.  My search continues into the biographies, treatment, and final resting places of these victims.

March is Women’s History Month, as well as the anniversary of the explosion. As the days go by, I find myself reflecting on the victims, and remembering them as each funeral anniversary passes.

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4 Responses to Brown’s Island Victims

  1. Robert Rainey says:

    A terrible tragedy indeed.

  2. Annette says:

    Wonderful article. They need to be remembered.

  3. John Foskett says:

    There’s an interesting consequence which may have resulted in part from this event – and so far as I know it hasn’t been verified but it is plausible. The ANV artillery barrage on Day 3 at Gettysburg involved a good deal of “overshooting”, which actually made the Union rear areas more dangerous than the line on Cemetery Ridge. The ANV gunners apparently were using primarily paper fuzes for their shell and case shot. (Ironically, one of the reasons for this was earlier problems they’d been having with the Bormann mechanical fuze). The Richmond event had caused a shortage, so facilities in Alabama and SC had to jump into the production that Spring. Supposedly the paper from those sources had a slower burn rate than the Richmond product – something that may have been confirmed by subsequent ordnance dep’t tests. There are multiple explanations for the overshooting but this may have contributed.

  4. Robert Rainey says:

    Very interesting and informative, thanks for posting.

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