VIRGINIA DIVISION DEDICATES MONUMENT TO VICTIMS OF CS LABORATORIES EXPLOSION
Front of the monument, which was engraved by Bernard F. Groves Monuments. [Photograph courtesy of Mrs. B. Donald Boltz]
On March 13, 1863, 18-year-old Irish immigrant Mary Ryan reported for work in Department 6 of Richmond's Confederate States Laboratories (CSL) on Brown's Island in the James River. The brainchild of Confederate ordnance chief Colonel Josiah Gorgas, the CSL was charged with manufacturing small arms and ammunition for the Southern war effort.
Because most of Richmond's men were already serving their country at the front, women and young children were the backbone of the operation. Their hands were small, dextrous, and well suited to the task of assembling the cartridges, fuses, caps, and primers for the Confederate army. Working at peak efficiency, even a child as young as nine could turn out an astonishing 1200 cartridges per day.
A January 1863 article in the Richmond Inquirer had praised the CSL for its admirable safety record, but all that was about to change.
Back of the monument listing the names of the dead. [Photograph courtesy of Mrs. B. Donald Boltz]
Although Mary, at 18, was one of the factory's older workers, her youth and her rudimentary knowledge of explosives would led to disaster on that chilly March day. As she attempted to extract and recycle the black powder from a defective friction primer, she inadvertently created a spark that detonated the powder on her table. The chain reaction that followed destroyed the building that had housed Department 6 and killed Mary and 45 of her 70 co-workers. Almost all of the dead were young girls under the age of 16.
Despite the fact that they gave their lives for their country, those who perished in the Brown's Island explosion were soon forgotten as Richmond returned to the grim business of supplying the soldiers in the field. Only Department 6 supervisor Reverend John Woodcock was accorded the dignity of a proper funeral and a headstone; the remainder of the victims (many the children of poor immigrant families) were laid to rest in unmarked paupers' graves.
Ex-Virginia Division CofC President and Mary Custis Lee-17th Virginia Regiment Chapter 7 member Miss Katie Fraser reads the names of the victims
One hundred and thirty-nine years after the accident that claimed their lives, the women and children of the Confederate States Laboratories have at last received the recognition that has so long eluded them. On September 15, 2001, members of Virginia Division UDC and Virginia Division CofC gathered in the Confederate section of Richmond's Oakwood Cemetery to dedicate a monument to those who died in the Brown's Island explosion.
At the suggestion of Fairfax Chapter 1410 member Mrs. B. Donald Boltz, who had researched the explosion for an article in The Washington Times, Virginia Division President Mrs. David S. Whitacre set out to design and finance a suitable memorial to the victims. She was assisted in her undertaking by Virginia Division, Children of the Confederacy, which conducted a year-long fundraising campaign to help defray the cost of the monument.
The monument is unveiled by Mrs. David S. Whitacre, Mrs. Frank I. Silek (President General UDC), Miss Katie Fraser (behind the monument), Mr. Dan Begley (Irish American Society of Greater Richmond), and Mrs. B. Donald Boltz (President, Fairfax Chapter 1410) as Virginia Division CofC Custodian Miss Jenna Swanson looks on.
The gray granite marker that now stands beside the gazebo in Oakwood Cemetery tells the story of the explosion; the names of those who perished and their ages are engraved on the back.
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