Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Arsenal Girls - Flash Fiction

Friday, October 17, 1862

The war came to town, but not in the way we expected.

Late on an Autumn day, only a month ago, blast after blast struck our town, pouring thick smoke into the air, sending minie balls and bullets through helpless bodies, all the while our Townspeople rushed to throw water on workers who were afire. I remember thanking God that it was not me, and yet feeling guilty precisely because it was not me.

I also recall that it was payday.

News was trickling in that day about a bloody battle being fought some place down South called Antietam.  My Tom hadn't joined up yet, being 16, but we both knew it was just a matter of time; his older brother was already with the 123rd PA organized in August.  It didn't sit well with him that I was a newly employed cartridge choker at the Arsenal, either. But Father was newly passed with Consumption and Mother was struggling to make ends meet;  we girls at the Arsenal worked together in a room with an Officer and so what harm could come to us?  Simple work, putting lead balls in paper tubes with gunpowder, then tying off the ends.  Ten hours of repetitiveness, but good money, much gay chatting amongst ourselves, and far easier on the hands than taking in washing!  It was quite droll to see the smallest girls some 10 and 12, with heads bent, chattering together about the naughty boys who worked at other tasks. Sometimes I thought about the soldier who would bite off the end of one of My Cartridges and load it in his musket to tear a bloody hole in another man's chest; War is a Hideous Thing but I did my part to preserve the Union and our brave men's lives. 

I was not at work that Fateful Day owing to a complaint.  And so I was witness to the Horror and the Heroic Efforts of our townfolk.  It was Hell On Earth, and the first thought of many was that the Confederates had invaded.  At the first thunderclap people ran toward the smoke and noise to be met by girls streaming from the Arsenal, some blackened and bloodied, some with fire still licking at their clothes, begging for help to remove or smother them. A few Poor Souls jumped from windows to their deaths. I hesitate to add that there were limbs suspended from trees and bodies riddled with bullet holes so that they could not pass for Human anymore.

It is not known what caused the blast;  some say a spark from the shoe of a cart horse, others that a careless match may have been at fault.  There was gunpowder everywhere, and some of the barrels may have leaked.  Perhaps only God will ever know.

In the end the Dead numbered seventy-eight, and I was reminded of the Tributes Of Respect for our Soldiers Fallen In Battle.  Were these Arsenal Girls not soldiers as well?

My Mother and Tom both thanked God that I had been spared.  We have pledged our troth, Tom and I, for though we are Young it has been driven home that the War may well spare no one, and that we should therefore bind our Hearts and Souls and make use of the Time which remains to us.  I know that Tom will go, as he must, and that I will continue to contribute what I can, if not at the Arsenal than perhaps as a nurse or as a seamstress. 

Predictions of a Brief War having been proven wrong, I can only hope that it will be over before we need mark the Anniversary of that Dreadful Day here in Pittsburgh.

Author's note:  while this piece is based on a true event (and I have tried to make sure that details are correct), the narrator is a fictional composite and in no way is meant to represent any one person.


  1. What a great character voice to use, Li. I know you do a lot of research into a piece, and it's always appreciated. Add this to a growing list (at least, readers lists) to think about taking her further in other diary entries.

  2. Thanks Stu :-)) I do like to try and get the details right. Still playing with various genres, time periods, and voices.

  3. Very evocative. I hadn't known that aspect at all - girls working in Arsenals. Now I really hope her and Tom will be okay in the future.

  4. excellent...really enjoyed this one...and def think you could carry this forward....i hope you and yours have a great holidays!

  5. I wish you all the best during the holidays to you and those around you. Thank you very much for sharing the beauty of your words.

  6. I love pieces about war because it takes me back to family members who I knew were part of them although I can never fully imagine what they must have gone through. Every little piece helps me envision it.

    Hope you enjoy a beautiful holiday season, Li!

  7. Interesting perspective--especially since it was mostly men on the battlefields, so the role women played isn't as often told.

  8. Definitely an interesting angle... makes me wonder about the countless untold female war stories...
    Hope you have a Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!
    Thanks for sharing your beautiful writing.

  9. I love that you wrote from an Arsenal Girl's perspective.

    And you got her voice just right. Well written. :-)

  10. This was a very enjoyable read. I love the way it pulled me into the time period.

  11. This is very good writing. Is there a novel in the works?

  12. Deniz - I found it intriguing as well. When I think of women working in munitions plants, I always picture WW2, not the American Civil War.

    Brian- thank you. Not sure if I would expand this, but since I like historical fiction maybe a collection of shorts down the road...

    Leovi - happy holidays, and keep on with those gorgeous photos!

    Sam - thank you :-)) My father has done a lot of work in researching our family roots, there are stories in there to tell one day, including many from wartime.

    Golden Eagle - true! And I did see mention of a few women who disguised themselves as men and went to war.

    mish - agreed. Also, plenty written about soldiers and battles, not as much about civilian efforts during the Civil War.

    Misha - thank you :-) I had to dig around quite a bit and read samples of letters and diaries from the era to try and get the tone, language (and sporadic use of capitalization) of the period. Lots of time can go into writing a small piece!

    Chuck - that's one of the best compliments a writer can receive :-) Thank you.

    @zencherry - Thank you!! I have a novel in the works, but it's been stalled for 8 months and may be abandoned - a psychological thriller. No historical novel in the works, but I might try a collection of shorts. FIRST, waiting for "Small Doses" to be released to see how that goes :-))

  13. Well this is good info for me. Thanks for sharing this!

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  14. I liked this glimpse into an historical period and event about which I know nothing. I also liked the character's world view and voice, the capitalisations were an intriguing pointer to what was important in the events to her.

  15. Ooo short stories? I'd love that! It's definitely something I would buy. :D

  16. Nicely written. I enjoy historical fiction. I did not know about "arsenal girls" until I read this.

  17. you really bring history to life Li - fascinating.

  18. Hi again, just wanted to stop by and wish you a wonderful New Year. :-)

  19. This is such a powerful way to end the story and the year, Li: "the War may well spare no one, and that we should therefore bind our Hearts and Souls and make use of the Time which remains to us." It's so difficult to remember when life seems happy-go-lucky all the time. I guess that's why the challenges are so valuable.

    Hope you had an amazing turn of the year, friend! =)

  20. Very nice Lisa. I think you got the language and the tone of the story just right. It must have been scary alive back then.

  21. Aw, this was a really quality post. In theory I'd like to write like this too - taking time and real effort to make a good article... but what can I say... I procrastinate alot and never seem to get something done.
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