Tragedy at Brown's Island

     Ruins of State Arsenal and Richmond & Petersburg Railroad Bridge*

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    On March 9, the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar and the Richmond National Battlefield Park will present Tragedy at Brown’s Island.
    The event will run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It will explore the tragic home front story of the Friday the 13th explosion that took place at the C.S. Laboratory on Brown’s Island. There, young women and girls produced the material of war.
    According to American Civil War Center President Christy Coleman, March 13, 1863 was a day like no other.
    "Eighteen-year-old Mary Ryan had the task of filling friction primers-explosive devices used to ignite gunpowder in cannon. It was delicate and dangerous work best suited for small, nimble hands,” Coleman said. "Shortly before noon that day, Mary was seen repeatedly rapping the board containing the primers against her bench seat. The primer exploded sending Mary straight into the air. With gunpowder residue in the air, this ignition triggered a massive explosion that quickly swept through and demolished the building.”
    About 20 young women died instantly. Another 20 died within hours from burns and other injuries. In the midst of war, this was the worst domestic tragedy Richmond had faced, Coleman said.
    "This tragedy illustrates that the casualties of war are not limited to the battlefield,” said Elizabeth Paradis Stern, chief of interpretation at Richmond National Battlefield Park.
    Tours to Brown’s Island will discuss the explosion along with the impact it had on Tredegar Iron Works, which produced more than half of all cannons and munitions used by the Confederacy.  
Costumed interpreters will also demonstrate how munitions cartridges were made and younger visitors can try jobs their counterparts undertook centuries ago.

Schedule of Events

    Ranger-led Tredegar/Brown’s Island/Arsenal tours will meet on the Bluestone Courtyard at 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.

   From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.  Historic interpreters will be at the following stations:

Patio: Small Arms/Richmond Arsenal
Uniformed soldiers will discuss and demonstrate the weapons
 produced at the Richmond Arsenal.

3rd Floor, Pattern Building: Brown’s Island and
Cartridge Making Demonstration

Period-attired women will discuss working at laboratories producing material for the war effort.
Guests will be able to try their hand at cartridge rolling.

3rd Floor, Pattern Building: Richmond Clothing
Manufactory Demonstration

Historical interpreter will demonstrate the type of clothing produced and how garments were cut and kitted for contract seamstresses.

3rd  Floor, Pattern Building: The Black Civilians of
Richmond, 1863

Historic interpreter will demonstrate some of the varieties of work
free and enslaved people performed in Richmond ca.1863.

2nd Floor, Pattern Building: Artillery Demonstration
Uniformed soldiers will demonstrate the firing of cannon and
 discuss its casting at Tredegar.

Upper and Lower Parcel: The Fighting Men of Richmond
Uniformed soldiers representing Co. F, 21st VA and the 15th VA will demonstrate their clothing, weapons and accoutrements that were products of Richmond manufacturers and
 discuss how the war impacted their families.
Upcoming Partner Events

Wednesday, March 13, at 11 a.m.
  Dedication of Brown’s Island Historic Marker
   On the 150th anniversary of the explosion of the C.S. Laboratory, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources will dedicate a new historic marker remembering the tragic event.  The marker will be located near the bridge to Brown’s Island at the corner of 5th and Tredegar streets.  The dedication will be followed by a National Park Service ranger-led tour of the island and exploring the story of the explosion.

Sunday, March 17, at 1 p.m.
  Dedication of Memorial Marker at Shockoe Hill Cemetery
   Friends of Shockoe Hill Cemetery will dedicate a memorial marker to the 14 girls buried there who were killed in the C.S. Laboratory explosion in March 1863. The event will be followed by refreshments and tours on a variety of themes, including the 14 girls.

* Photo by Alexander Gardner, Library of Congress.