On June 17, 1864, fireworks were laid out to dry by the superintendent of the Washington Arsenal. The heat of the summer day caused the fireworks to explode into the choking room where workers were filling cartridges with gunpowder. The resulting explosions and fire claimed the lives of 21 women, many of them young Irish immigrants working as the sole providers for their families. Seventeen of these victims are interred at Congressional Cemetery, 15 of them laid to rest beneath the Arsenal Monument. (Two are interred separately in family plots.)
The Arsenal was located near the intersection of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, on what is now Fort McNair at Greenleaf Point—one of the oldest residential neighborhoods in the District of Columbia. During the Civil War, the large facility was dedicated primarily to making ammunition for the Union Army.
After the tragedy, a funeral for the victims was held at the Arsenal which was well attended and included President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. After the ceremony, a funeral procession traveled down Pennsylvania Avenue to Congressional Cemetery. The route was lined by many of Washington’s citizens and still others crowded the cemetery.
Lot Flannery, later responsible for the statute of Lincoln placed in front of the courthouse, carved the sculpture representing “Grief” which sat atop the memorial. The dedication took place on the first anniversary of the explosion.
Know Before You Go
The monument is in the west section of Congressional Cemetery.