The Most Appalling Disaster
Jackson, Mississippi Arsenal Explosion

November 5, 1862


by
H. Grady Howell, Jr.

We are all more than familiar with the recent disasters in New York and Washington, D.C., caused by terrorists who wish to destroy us and our way of life. This is really not a new phenomon in the history of mankind. We, here in the State of Mississippi had our own similar disaster in November, 1862, in the midst of a war which we fighting to declare our independence from the folds of the beautiful banner we all hold so dear today. Our disaster, however, appears to have been the result of a grievous accident rather than the work of saboteurs or madmen.

Jackson, the State Capital of Mississippi, was the scene of much military activity between the years 1861-1865. Its primary importance during this period of war, aside from the fact that it was the crossroads of railroad traffic through the State and Deep South, was that it was a city of executive and military authority, a military stockpile depot, behind-the-lines hospital area and a crucial center of the state's manufacturing and munitions production.

Like the rest of the Confederacy, Jackson relied on ersatz to supplement its heavily over-taxed resources. Its medical facilities ranged from open and tented lots, private homes, empty warehouses, churches and a precious few actual hospitals; smelly tanneries turned out leather for shoes and accouterments; mills produced clothe for uniforms and tents; quartermasters gleaned the area of subsistence crops to support the army; and a small munitions plant moved into a vacant school for boys.

The public schools of Jackson were situated on the northern outskirts of the city on a site known as "College Green." This area was bounded on the North by High Street, South by Mississippi Street, East by Jefferson Street and West by North Street. Two brick two-story structures were erected in this area before the war. The northernmost building was for boys and the one on the southern end of this "Green" was for girls. According to one historian: "In 1862 the boys school building was converted into an arsenal and occupied by about eighty men, women and children, manufacturing cartridges for the Confederacy."

Jackson had been a relatively quiet provincial town in 1860. The U.S. Federal Census for that year tabulated its population at 3,191. This figure mushroomed to many thousands with the coming of the war. Most of the increase was due to soldiers either stationed in the vicinity or passing through. The largest stationary increase, however, was due to the many country people who flocked to town to secure jobs on the home front.

For all its importance to the Confederacy, Jackson was certainly no fabled fortress-city like Troy. Even though it was a massive encampment, hospital and staging area, the defenses protecting the city were described by one foreign observer as, "a mild trench...dignified by the name of the fortifications of Jackson." In 1862 there was no need for bristling field works in central Mississippi. The war was distant to many Jacksonians, especially those with no loved ones away at the battlefront. Evidence of how serious the war was reached Jackson first-hand in early April, 1862, when numerous, bloody trainloads of dead and dying were suddenly dumped into the city and surrounding area in the wake of the horrific Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee.

The news on everyone's lips by early November of '62 centered on Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's and Union Gen. George B. McClelland's armies hammering each other to a standstill at Sharpsburg, Maryland, in what would also be called the Battle of Antietam and September 17, 1862, being forever known as the bloodiest single day's fighting of the war. Closer to home, on October 4th, Confederate Gen. Earl Van Dom' s Confederate Army was likewise bloodily repulsed by Union Gen. William Rosecran's Army in the Battle of Second Corinth, Mississippi. After the latter more casualty trains steamed into Jackson day and night delivering the quick and the dead. With the constricting of its national borders and collapse of resources to its north, Jackson became even more important for its small plants and manufactories. Despite these catastophies, by November, 1862, the war was still pretty much a distant affair to its citizenry.

On November 5th an independently minded young man measured off the distance between his home and job in the Jackson Arsenal. The day was clear and relatively warm. It had been unusually dry and leaves and twigs crushed and snapped underfoot as he walked along. He did not know it at the time but miles to the northeast in Washington, D.C., President Abraham Lincoln, his avowed enemy, was replacing Gen. McClelland as commander of the Union Army of the Potomac with Gen. Ambrose E. Bumside who would later lead this army to severe defeat in the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Simultaneously, a skirmish was taking place near Jumpertown in northeast Mississippi, and Union forces were jockeying into position at LaGrange and Grand Junction, Tennessee and the swamps north of Vicksburg, Mississippi, for Gen. U. S. Grant's Autumn Campaign of 1862 to capture that prize fortress-city on the Mississippi River.

All that did not bother him as he paced himself on this fateful day. What did bother this young man, however, and played constantly on his mind was the carelessness he had witnessed in the day-to-day operation of his place of employment, the Arsenal.

His job was that of a "cartridge-maker" and part of the process was called "dipping." He dipped the ball-end of the prepared cartridge, which consisted of a ball and powder wrapped in paper wadding, into a pan of melted, mixed wax and tallow. He visualized the process, "to keep this mixture melted a small lamp placed in an iron frame upon which rested a copper pan containing the wax and tallow was kept burning. Occasionally it would be necessary to remove the pan so as to be able to draw up the wick of the lamp. Loose powder was usually scattered about the table and frequently stray grains would adhere to the bottom of the pan and flash when placed over the lamp. I have repeatedly complained of this to the foreman," he thought, "but he takes no steps to remedy this problem."

When he reached the arsenal the boy noticed that a fresh barrel of powder had been opened that morning, "and there was probably a half pound more loose in cartridges." Increasingly irritated, the boy continued to work. At about 11 o'clock A.M. on replacing the pan after rearranging the wick there was such a flash that "I came near jumping out of the window," he later recalled. He protested the danger to his supervisor once again, who snubbed him. Aggravated, the youth angrily quit his job and returned to his home. He was the last known individual to leave the building alive.

About 3:30 P.M. he heard and felt a terrific explosion and raced back to the arsenal. He noticed that "the little Gem Engine" was quickly brought out from the fire house, but the continued detonations of shells and cartridges made it unsafe to go near. The explosion was heard as far to the East as Brandon, in Rankin County.

On the following day, November 6th, The Weekly Mississippian, a Jackson newspaper reported:

"A Dark Day For Jackson.

Yesterday afternoon about three o'clock a terrific explosion took place at the Arsenal in this city, blowing up the Magazine and producing a fearful shock throughout the city and its suburbs, killing all the hands engaged in making cartridges and completely destroying all the vast army stores that had been gathered there. The scene after the explosion is described as heart-rending. Mangled bodies of men, women and girls who had been employed in making cartridges were scattered in every direction!

Many bodies were so terribly lacerated as to render recognition wholly impossible. We are not able today to give the names of that ill-fated band -- about thirty-four -- who were so hurriedly ushered into eternity, or the extent of the loss sustained in the munitions of war, but will do so tomorrow. The sight was dreadful in the highest degree, and the loss of ammunition heavy. Jackson will long remember and mourn the sad occurrence."

On November 7th The Mississippian reported more fully:

"About half past three o'clock on Wednesday afternoon, (the day before yesterday) our city was the scene of one of the most appalling disasters that it was ever our misfortune to witness, the results of which are heart-rending. At the above hour one of the buildings, about three squares back of the Bowman House, used by the Ordnance officers for the manufacture of ammunition, exploded with an awful crash that shook every house in the city, and caused the greatest alarm and excitement -- in an instant astonishment and horror was depicted in every face, and soon hundreds were running with breathless haste to the locality of the sad occurrence. A scene here met the eye that caused the stoutest heart to quail! The two story brick building used as the laboratory was blown to the smallest atoms, and the debris were scattered for several hundred yards around. All the men and women employed in the building at the time, had been hurled to instantaneous destruction. Shockingly mangled bodies of both sexes lay around in the most frightful and horrible positions, besides blackened and disfigured so as to almost defy identity as human beings! One man had a leg torn off and his brains literally blown out. The body of a poor girl was hanging by one foot to the limb of a tree, she was evidently dead, but her clothes were still burning. Other bodies were blown to the distance of from fifty to one hundred and fifty yards, and presented a mutilated and most shocking appearance. The packages of powder and the shells were yet continually exploding as the fire of the burning ruins reached them, and many who attempted to go nearer, in order to render assistance, if needed, were thus warned to desist until the danger was over.

The fire engine was promptly on the ground, but could not do much owing to the want of water.

In a short time many of the friends and relatives of the unfortunate victims were on the spot, and scenes of the most affecting and heart-rending character took place as the awful fatality was known. Several surgeons and humane gentlemen endeavored to find some who had not been killed outright, but the only one we saw who seemed to have any chance of recovery was a sentinel! -- his thigh was broken and he was otherwise wounded, he was carefully placed on a cot and borne off by friends. Another sentinel, about one hundred yards or more from the explosion, was hit in the back by a flying brick, -- and but slightly injured. James Carnes, a carpenter was also slightly hurt in the side. These three were the only one outside the building who were hurt.

The officers in charge of the Arsenal, are we learn, Colonel A. P. Stockton, Captain W. Tams, Lieutenant R. S. Kinney, and Capt. H. Fisher. Col. Stockton had fortunately been called away. Captain Tames and Captain Fisher were not in the immediate vicinity of the explosion luckily, and Lieutenant Kinney was providentially absent, sick in his room. [Which explains the problem, all of the officers, save one superintendent, were not on duty at the site.] At the time of the explosion, the laboratory held only a few hundred rounds of fixed ammunition, and about two hundred pounds of powder, so that the pecuniary loss is quite inconsiderable. The cause that led to this tragical occurrence, must like others of a similar nature, remain, a mystery. It is most positively known that there was no fire within several hundred feet of the laboratory, and no satisfactory account can ever be given of the cause of this direful calamity. The officers mentioned, are well known to be skillful, experienced and cautious, and the employees had often been warned of the dangerous character of the materials they worked with -- only two out of twenty one young women are known to be saved -- twenty-nine bodies through the humane exertions of the Mayor and his attendants, have been gathered together for burial. Some of them have not been recognized, so severely have their features and bodies been distorted. The other buildings of the Arsenal were comparatively injured, but some of the dwellings in the immediate vicinity, were considerably damaged. Their occupants had a wonderful escape, and were terror-stricken for hours after the occurrence. While our community mourns over the sad reality of the frightful destructions of life, we are all seriously reminded of the great uncertainty of human affairs. We trust, that we may never again have to relate such agonizing details of the loss of human beings -- The unparalleled fact, of the greater portion of the victims being helpless women is dreadful indeed, and serves to make this the most truly melancholy record we ever penned. -- Owing to the confusion and excitement in the city , we were unable to give our readers anything like a definite statement of this sad and lamentable affair. We are indebted to the courtesy of Capt. Henry Fisher, military store keeper, for the following lists of the killed, those who are known to be safe and those not heard from -- the latter we have hope will yet report themselves safe.

KNOW TO BE KILLED.
Thomas Halley, laborer
John Corcoran,    "
John Blake,        "
P. Somers,         "
J. Tiemay,          "
Charles Little,     "
William McCook,"
A. W. Moore, superintending laboratory.
Louis Divine, cartridge-maker
John Wall,          "
Ed. Wall,            "
John McNeil,       "
F. Olin,               "
W. Stowers,        "
Geo. Stowers,     "
A. J. Patterson,   "
John Tafley,        "
Laura Hickey,      "
Lucy Gray,          "
Nancy Gray,        "
Leona Head,        "
Sarah E. Jones,   "
Adela Hurd,         "
Caroline Muller,    "
Emily Grey,         "
Sarah James,      "
Cammie March,   "
Mary Powers,       "
Letitia Shannon,   "
Mary Burns,         "
Thomas Wallace, laborer.
John Heaply, cartridge-maker.
Chas. Herr,          "
W. Brey,              "
M. Stafford,          "
J. Harrigan,          "
Mary Henderson,  "
Nelly Powell,        "
Emma Moody,     "
Martha Patterson, "
W. T. Millett,        "
E. Monahan,        "
H. Donald,           "
F. Muller,             "
A. S. Langley,      "
L. Boston,           "
James Cames, laborer, slightly injured in the side."

"Another Victim. -- We learn this morning, that a deaf and dumb boy by the name of Joel Crane, who was not mentioned in our list of the casualties yesterday, was killed in the explosion of the ordnance building, Wednesday evening."

As is the case with most disasters, confusion reigned and is evidenced by the following news article:

"In the list of casualties attending the explosion of the Ordnance building on Wednesday evening, the fate of Henry Donnell and W. S. Millett, was put down as unknown; the facts were far different. Henry Donnell and W. S. Millett, were the first discovered and removed, and were consigned to the tomb the following evening.

We also would make this correction--instead of F. Olin, it should have been Oliver H. Oliin who was killed. F. Olin was not hurt.

E. Monahan and Emma Moode were also put down as "fate unknown," but both bodies were found, and as in the case of all who were in the ill-fated building, their sad fate is too well known. Not one of that ill-starred band is left to tell of the awful disaster."

Luther S. Braechtel, a State Treasury Department Clerk, penned in his daily journal that night:
"Terrible accident today at 3 1/2 P.M. Government Arsenal (North School House) blew up causing death of between 35 & 40 personnel -- All inside were killed so that no one can account for the explosion supposed to be accidental -- the exact number of lives lost cannot be ascertained."

In yet another horrible surprise on November 5th, The Mississippian exclaimed on November 6th:

"Before our city recovered from the shock caused by the explosion of the magazine, a me broke out on Main street, (South State street) occupied by Mr. Goodman as a jewelry and dry-goods establishment. This occurred about 10:30 P.M. The wind blew in a northwesterly direction and owing to the extremely dry weather and the difficulty of getting water it was seriously feared that the whole city would be swept in the general conflagration. The fire raged northward from the building occupied by Mr. Goodman, and destroyed the house occupied by Mrs. Evans as a millinery establishment and continued its ravages to Mr. Weirs, next to John Martz, next to Mr. John Robinson's where the progress of the flames was arrested. Also destroyed was the depot of the Southern Railroad with several surrounding buildings. Several bales of cotton and a considerable quantity of goods were also destroyed, the extent of which we have not yet been advised."

Clerk Baechtel recorded in his journal that, "many goods were stolen after being removed" from the depot. He also noted that on the 6th he, " Attended the funeral at 4 P.M. [and] saw 11 of the explosion victims lowered into their graves in 1 1/2 hours."

The girl' s school survived the blast and stood for a number of years after the war. The devastation of war, however, wiped away many records of this, the most tragic and blackest day in Jackson, Mississippi; and despite The Mississippian's prediction that "Jackson will long remember and mourn the sad occurrence," it was forgotten by succeeding generations to the point that not even the location of the mass burial sites within the confines of Greenwood Cemetery (the Old City Cemetery of Civil War times) is noted and can be found!

On February 11, 1863, a scant three months after the explosion an appropriately named Jackson newspaper, The Daily Southern Crisis, carried the following:

"We regret to learn that an accident occurred on the Southern railroad, on Monday last, by which a citizen of this city lost his life. Mr. David Gray was killed at the crossing of the bridge over Black river. He was a brakeman and was standing on top of the cars at the time the train struck the bridge. The joists above were so low as to require a man to sit down to safely cross. Not observing this precaution, either from inattention on his part, or from the failure of the engineer to give the proper signal, he was struck in the back of the head by the joist and instantly killed. The blow tore off his upper part of the head, and subsequently one hand was cut off, and his leg broken both above and below the knee. This is the ninth accident of a similar character that has occurred at that bridge within the past few months.


Mr. Gray was quite a young man and was the only support of a widowed mother. Two of his sisters were killed last fall, at the explosion of the arsenal in this city. --His father was killed a year or so ago."

As late as 1953, Anabel Powers, a Mississippi columnist described the trail of residue left where the disaster of November 5th had taken place, 91 years after it had happened:

"The Arsenal occupied a large part of what is now the 500 block of North street and on the site now stands the home of the late Mr. and Mrs. T. P. Barr, and their family. Their daughters, Mrs. Ida Bar, Hannah and Mrs. M. E. Barr Martin and Mr. Martin still occupy the home which Mr. Barr bought in 1897. On taking possession of the property Mr. Barr immediately had the back part excavated for a garden; workmen struck brick foundation of the old arsenal and all the bricks were removed and stored for further use. Numerous flower beds in the yard are outlines with these relics of Jackson's greatest tragedy at that time. A splendid oak tree still stands in the yard and into its branches were blown mangled bodies during the explosion. A cannon ball is imbedded in its trunk and we are told that even now, after ninety years, following unusually heavy rains, millie balls and fragments of shell are brought to the surface and, until a few years ago, an occasional cannon ball would be found. A tree in the yard of Mr. and Mrs. Tom Spengler, adjoining the residence carries a cannon ball in its trunk as a reminder of the tragedy."

As stated earlier, the horrible tragedy was, regretfully, largely forgotten with time. The words penned by J. L. Power in the Jackson City Directory of 1860, two years before it happened, strike an all-to-familiar cord concerning the short memories of many in the old capitol city both then and now:

"As 'one of the oldest inhabitants' has not yet furnished me with an 'authentic sketch' of the early times of Jackson, I will not attempt anything of the kind myself. The list of Inscriptions in our Cemetery, however, will prove a silent, though sad history, of the place. While it may be regretted that the graves of many of our departed citizens are without designation, yet their silent resting places are recognized by those few who were more near and dear to them in life. For them,

----'There is no stone
To sanctify the dead;
0'er them the willow droops alone,
With only wild flowers spread."'

 

copyright H. Grady Howell, Jr., 2002


H. Grady Howell, Jr., born in Biloxi, is a ninth generation Mississippian. He holds both B.A. and M.A. degrees in History from Southeastern Louisiana University as well as diplomas in archivy from the National Archives (Washington, D.C.) and Emory University-Georgia Department of Archives and History (Atlanta, GA).

His literary credits include: His literary credits include: To Live and Die in Dixie, A History of the Third Mississippi Infantry, C.S.A., 150 Anniversary Shiloh [MS] United Methodist Church 1828-1978, Going to Meet the Yankees, A History of the "Bloody Sixth" Mississippi Infantry, C. S., and Hill of Death, The Battle of Champion Hill.. He wrote the Foreward and compiled the Index to the reprint of Dunbar Rowland's classic 1908 work, Military History of Mississippi 1803-1898. He has also authored and been involved in producing numerous historical articles and books.

A former Sgt. and Jet fighter mechanic with the U.S. Air Force's 4780th Air Defense Wing, Mr. Howell holds membership in Phi Alpha Theta (International Historical Honor Society); Mississippi Historical Society (Lifetime); Sons of Confederate Veterans (Jefferson Davis Camp No. 635); and is chairman of The Bonnie Blue Society of the S.C.V.

He is married to Gail Ann Wamsley, formerly of Baton Rouge. They have two children, Daniel Grady and Lori Anne, and reside in Madison, Mississippi.

 

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