Awesome photographer Kim Baker pointed me to the Arsenal Memorial for this week’s Monumental column. It’s part of Congressional Cemetery over in Southeast, just south of RFK, and a really amazing place to go see. Congressional is the first national cemetery, established 200 years ago. Many former members of the House and Senate are buried there, alongside Washington’s elite, including the King of the March, John Philip Sousa.
June 17, 1864 was a hot day in Washington. In the arsenal at 4th Street, a staff of 100 people was busy assembling shells for use by the Union Army in the Civil War. What happened that morning is one of the original cases for good fireworks laws. A few pans of flare pellets set out in the sun to dry would spontaneously combust and throw sparks through the open window of the arsenal. What happened next is right out of a Michael Bay movie. More than 20 people died when the whole gunpowder store went up in a massive explosion. 18 were burned to death in the explosion and three more died in the ensuing panic.
The memorial was the result of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who ordered that the department would bear all the costs of the funeral for those who died in the explosion and fire. The monument that stands there bears the name of the 21 who died, as well as a marble figurine of a woman with folded hands. It was the result of a citywide collection in the following year, which raised $3,000 to allow Lot Flannery to create the monument that stands at Congressional now.