Capitol Hill Restoration Society

Overbeck Lecture: Washington Arsenal Explosion

Posted on March 26th, 2015

On Tuesday, April 14,2015, Erin Bergin Voorheis will deliver a richly illustrated Overbeck History Lecture based on her late father’s book on the Washington Arsenal explosion of 1864. The little-remembered conflagration that rocked the city on a sweltering day in June killed twenty-one women, most of them very young, as they assembled and packaged ammunition for the Union war effort in a gunpowder-laden building at the site of present-day Fort McNair.

The incident, Voorheis notes, serves as a dramatic reminder of a new phenomenon that came with the Civil War mobilization – the hiring of thousands of women in Washington and around the country to staff government offices and war-related manufacturing plants as men left in droves for military service. Her lecture will also offer an interesting look at “the Island,” the Washington neighborhood (essentially the city’s Southwest quadrant) where the Arsenal’s low-paid workers lived and struggled to survive.

Voorheis’s father, Brian Bergin, finished writing The Washington Arsenal Explosion in 2009 but died before it could be published; Voorheis stepped in as editor and took the book to publication in 2012. The author, a former Peace Corps volunteer, Vietnam veteran, teacher and employee of the AFL-CIO, was a historian by avocation with a particular interest in the Civil War. His daughter is a professional writer and editor who says she inherited her love of American history from him.

Washingtonians familiar with Congressional Cemetery may have noted a stone monument there which commemorates the women who died in the Arsenal explosion.

Voorheis’s lecture is set for 7:30 p.m. at the Naval Lodge Hall at 330 Pennsylvania Ave. S.E. and will conclude with a book signing. As always, admission is free but a reservation is required due to limited seating. Please email and indicate how many seats you will need.

The Overbeck History Lectures are a project of the Capitol Hill Community Foundation. Please remember CHCF in your charitable giving.