The Confederate States Laboratory, which produced ammunition, had an explosion March 13th 1863 killing 40 and injuring 23 others.
The Confederate States Laboratory was an ordnance factory, which was located on Brown’s Island in the James River near Richmond, Virginia. The Laboratory was started by Confederate Captain Wesley Smith in 1861. They made cartridges, caps, fuses, grenades, signal rockets, and primers for the Confederate Army. Smith started by hiring just few workers, getting them well trained and then hire more as needed. Most of his workers were female aged 9 to 20. They turn out on average about 1,200 cartridges in a day.
On March 13th 1863 sometime before noon the roar of the explosion was heard in Richmond, Virginia, but it wasn’t until dark smoke appeared that people headed to the island. The Richmond Examiner wrote in its paper, “A tide of human beings, among them the frantic mothers and kindred of the employees in the laboratory, immediately set towards the bridge leading to the island, but the Government authorities, soonest apprised of the disaster, had already taken possession of the bridge, and planting a guard of soldiers, allowed passage to none except the workmen summoned to rescue the dead and wounded from the ruins.”
The building; in which the explosion occurred, was blown to pieces. Once the flames were put out around 12 bodies were removed from the wreckage. Out of the rest of the women all were in agony, with their hair and clothes burned away, many blinded, many unrecognizable. Out of these another 28 would die within days. Several of the women who were on fire, jumped into the river, where one drowned. One woman whose clothing was on fire ran toward another building where large amounts of gunpowder were stored, but was luckily stopped by a male employee, saving many more lives.
The explosion is blamed on 18 year old Mary Ryan an Irish immigrant. Witnesses say she was trying free a primer which was stuck to a varnishing board, by rapping on a table. The primer went off and blew her to the ceiling; she came down and then was blown up again. She died at her father’s home later and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. The Laboratory was back up and running by December 1863.