The victims of the March 13, 1863, explosion of the Confederate Ordnance Laboratory were remembered Wednesday at a ceremony along the James River near what once was a bustling munitions plant for the South. Today it is a popular destination for Civil War buffs, concert-goers and downtown workers on their lunch break.
The ceremony dedicating a state historic marker in memory of the victims, many of them Irish immigrants, was attended by National Park Service historians, state officials and a representative from the Irish American Society of Richmond. They gathered across from Brown’s Island, where the ordnance complex was located to keep it a safe distance from the residents of the capital of the Confederacy.
The victims were young, some pre-teen, others in their 20s.
“They were like 11, 12, 13, 15. They wanted them to work at Brown’s Island because they had small fingers and they could do the work and they were immigrants and having a job in America as opposed to subsistence living in Ireland seemed to be a good deal,” said Dan Begley of the Irish American Society.
They were among 2,200 Irish-born residents of the city of 37,000 in 1860.
“This was deemed the sort of labor that young women could do,” said Robert E.L. Crick, a historian with the National Park Service. “It certainly wasn’t safe but it wasn’t strenuous.”
The lab was among the foundries along this downtown stretch of the James River that produced munitions for the war. Tredegar Iron Works, now home to the American Civil War Center and Park Service exhibits on the war, produced about half the cannon barrels for the South, and the Confederate States Armory up the hill from Tredegar built small arms.
The lab explosion occurred in the middle of the river, on Brown’s Island, which is often crowded most summer weekends with family picnics, hikers and bikers.
At approximately the same hour as Wednesday’s ceremony — 150 years ago — a worker named Mary Ryan accidently ignited a friction primer that sparked the deadly explosion.
An account in the Richmond Examiner reported that “a dull, prolonged roar” echoed from Brown’s Island, attracting “frantic mothers and kindred of the employees of in the laboratory” to the banks of the James. The building was “blown into a complete wreck, the roof lifted off, and the walls dashed out...” the newspaper reported.
Those responding to the explosion were met with the horror of what had just happened: the dead being carried from the smoldering remains and the near-dead “suffering the most horrible agonies, blind from burns, with hair burned from their heads, and the clothing hanging in burning shreds...”
Two men and a boy were among the dead.
The tragedy was followed by an outpouring of giving from the city, whose economy was in a shambles, and from Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s troops, who were staged outside Fredericksburg.
The dedication of the Department of Historic Resources marker was accompanied by the playing of bagpipes and with satisfaction from Begley, who said it shines a light on another side of the Civil War, its battles and generals.
“There’s always been immigrants and there’s always been immigrant stories here, even here in Richmond,” he said. “I’m very happy that there’s some kind of story pertaining to personal lives ....”