As an election junkie, I have to restrain myself from constantly refreshing prediction sites like FiveThirtyEight.com. So when Tanya Anderson’s Gunpowder Girls: The True Stories of Three Civil War Tragedies showed up in my mailbox (thanks to my support of Quindaro Press‘s Kickstarter campaign), I figured, “Hey, here’s a chance to read about a time when this country was really divided!”
If you want to feel pretty good about the state of America in 2016, Gunpowder Girls is a fine choice. While it’s a young-adult book aimed at teenage readers, this is a story that will no doubt be new to older history buffs as well.
During the Civil War, girls as young as 10 toiled in arsenals, filling paper cartridges with gunpowder and lead to produce rounds of ammunition. The workers, mostly poor immigrants, did their best to fill the unending demand for percussion caps and rifle cartridges: “twelve hours a day, six days a week… Shoulders and backs ached, but the work had to be done, and quotas had to be met if the girls were going to keep these jobs.” Needless to say, working with dangerous, combustible material sometimes led to disaster, and three of the worst are detailed in this book: the Allegheny Arsenal near Pittsburgh, where an explosion killed 78 people, most of them young women in their teens and 20s; the Confederate States Laboratory in Richmond, Virginia, where 45 perished; and the Washington Arsenal in D.C., an 1864 tragedy that culminated in a funeral attended by President Lincoln.
Anderson draws on primary sources to fill out her narrative, leading to some pretty grisly descriptions (The Washington, D.C. Evening Star, on the scene of its local tragedy, detailed how “many of the bodies seemed to have been crisped quite bloodless, the flesh, where exposed, being perfectly white…”). If this seems too horrific for young readers, well, I don’t know that a book like this one would have been published 10 or 15 years ago, before novels like The Hunger Games attracted a wide teenage fan base. I think I’d rather see kids reading about real-life tragedies instead of stories about teens killing each other for entertainment purposes.
Plus, it’s important to show how far we’ve come in terms of child labor laws, workplace safety, etc. Anderson provides a reading list in the back for people who want to learn more about those issues.
There were times when the book left me wanting a bit more: Anderson often describes specific women, like 25-year-old mother of four Kate Horan (a victim of the Washington Arsenal disaster), and I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the family she left behind. There may not be a way to find out, but I was haunted by the reverberations of the accidents that surely affected hundreds, if not thousands, of people for decades to come.
The three tragedies described in Gunpowder Girls collectively killed more young women than died in the far better-known Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster, and yet they are all but forgotten. With this book, Anderson has ensured that a new generation will hear their stories.