Congressional Cemetery monument for victims of the Washington Arsenal explosion. Library of Congress

The Washington Arsenal Explosion

April 14, 2015

On April 14, 2015, Erin Bergin Voorheis delivered an Overbeck History Lecture based on her late father's book on the Washington Arsenal explosion of 1864. The little-remembered conflagration that rocked the city on a sweltering day in June killed twenty-one women, most of them very young, as they assembled and packaged ammunition for the Union war effort in a gunpowder-laden building at the site of present-day Fort McNair.

The incident, Voorheis noted, serves as a dramatic reminder of a new phenomenon that came with the Civil War mobilization - the hiring of thousands of women in Washington and around the country to staff government offices and war-related manufacturing plants as men left in droves for military service. Her lecture also offered an interesting look at "the Island," the Washington neighborhood (essentially the city's Southwest quadrant) where the Arsenal's low-paid workers lived and struggled to survive.

Voorheis's father, Brian Bergin, finished writing The Washington Arsenal Explosion in 2009 but died before it could be published; Voorheis stepped in as editor and took the book to publication in 2012. The author, a former Peace Corps volunteer, Vietnam veteran, teacher and employee of the AFL-CIO, was a historian by avocation with a particular interest in the Civil War. His daughter is a professional writer and editor who says she inherited her love of American history from him.

Washingtonians familiar with Congressional Cemetery may have noted a stone monument there which commemorates the women who died in the Arsenal explosion. It was paid for with donations from the victims' fellow workers and other laboring people around the city.

This was the final Overbeck Lecture to be held at the grand old Naval Lodge Hall at 330 Pennsylvania Avenue S.E. In September 2015, the series moved to Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital.

Past Lectures