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.