The Washington Arsenal was located where Fort Lesley McNair sits today, its first earth works being built there in 1791 and an arsenal opening along the same 28-acre location in 1801. Intended to be a major defense point for the city, the fort was abandoned by American troops during the British invasion of Washington in 1814.
Federal troops took as much gunpowder as they could carry from the arsenal and hid the rest left at the fort inside a well.
An accidental explosion killed and wounded about 45 British soldiers when a spark ignited an open barrel of black powder. A doctor on the scene reported ‘A tremendous explosion ensued whereby the officers and about 30 of the men were killed and the rest most shockingly mangled.” On their way out of the city, the English destroyed the arsenal buildings, which were rebuilt a few years after the war ended.
In 1826, the government purchased the land north of the arsenal buildings for the first federal penitentiary. (This was the site where the Lincoln conspirators were hung in 1865)
The Washington Arsenal was the largest of all Federal arsenals where the union army built and stored thousands of caissons and limbers, wagons and ambulances, cannon balls and mortar shells. The Arsenal employed hundreds of women who, by June of 1864, a year before the Civil War would end, were producing 120,000 cartridges per day.
The workers were mostly young and very poor Irish women and teenage girls, often from the same families. The young girls were in demand at the facility because their small, slender fingers were better suited to pack the cartridges. Not only was the building dangerous...the gunpowder was volatile and scared about the property but the working conditions were dreadful.
On the morning of June 17, 1864, a spark ignited a massive explosion in one of the buildings in the complex. The noise from explosion was deafening and witnesses said they felt the earth shake under their feet. The women rushed to the central door to escape causing a logjam.
Some women were saved due to the heroism of Storekeeper E.M. Stebbins and officers and soldiers of the 16th and 19th US Infantry Regiments. However, 21 girls weren’t saved and their deaths were brutal and horrific.
The explosion ripped off limbs and riddled bodies with bits of black metal. Mary Jane Black, an arsenal worker said “two girls behind me; they were on fire; their faces were burning and blood running from them. I pulled the clothes off one of them; while I was doing this, the other one ran up and begged me to cover her. I did not succeed in saving either one.”
The victims were mostly (But not exclusively) Irish-Americans including Melissa Adams, Emma J. Baird, Lizzie Brahler, Kate Branahan, Elizabeth Brannagan, Mary Burroughs, Emily Collins, Susan Harris, Eliza Lacy, Louisa Lloyd, Julia McEwen, Ellen Roche, Pinkey Scott, Mrs. W. E. Tippett and Maggie Yonson, Annie Roche, Sallie McElfresh, Johannah Connor, Bridget Dunn, Catherine Horan and Catherine Hull.
Strangly enough, there was a similar explosion at a Confederate arsenal in Richmond, and again, the victims were mostly young Irish girls desperate for work.
The funeral procession to from the Arsenal site to Congressional cemetery three days after the explosion, contained 150 carriages and stretched for more than a mile with President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton leading the procession.
Some of the girls were buried in a mass grave at Congressional cemetery (Johanna Connors, Bridget Dunn, Margaret Horan, and Rebeca Hull were buried at the Mt. Olivet Cemetery in a Roman Catholic ceremony. Maggie Yonson, Annie Roche and Sallie McElfresh were buried in family plots.).
The War Department paid all fees for funerals. Secretary Stanton notified the Commandant of the Arsenal that "You will not spare any means to express the respect and sympathy of the government for the deceased and their surviving friends." Still, a grief-stricken city collected $3,000 (At the time, a respectable middle class income was about $300 a year) to build a tall marble monument with a granite base which was carved by an Irish-American (Not Irish as is often reported) sculptor, Lot Flannery.
The Flannery brothers owned a marble stone business in town and Lot Flannery (1836 probably 1848-1922) worked on the creation of interior of the US Capitol building and created the marble statue of Lincoln that stands in Judiciary Square. Flannery claimed he knew Lincoln and was present at the theatre when Lincoln was assassinated.
The Washington Arsenal was closed in 1881 and the post was handed over to the Quartermaster Corps who renamed it The Washington Barracks. From 1898 until 1909, an army hospital was run on the site. It was here that Major Walter Reed researched his work on malaria. He died of peritonitis after an appendectomy at the post in 1902. In 1948, the post was renamed in honor of Lt. General Lesley J. McNair.
In September of 1910, sculptor Lot Flannery, who seemed to have a penchant for legal troubles, shot and wounded “a young negro man” named Jake Owens, who broke into Flannery’s studio/home/office (His firm was called Flannery & Phillipson) at Delaware and B streets SW. Flannery, 62 years old and a bachelor, fired five shot, hitting Owens with the sixth shot that passed through his back near the spine, the bullet exiting through his left ribs, managed to run to Second and Canal streets before he collapsed and was arrested. Owens later disappeared from his bed at the Eastern Dispensary and Casualty Hospital at B and 3rd Streets SE