They came to America for a better life. They didn’t live long enough to have the chance.

Poor immigrant girls, fresh off the boat with their families, desperate for money, are sent to Civil War arsenals to make ammunition.

The typical work week: 72 hours. The girls: as young as 9. The conditions: appalling.

Girls and women of the Washington Arsenal. This photograph by Mathew Brady was taken days before an explosion destroyed this building and killed many of those pictured here.

Today, we remember their service and their sacrifice. Because girls’ history is women’s history, too.

Gunpowder Girls is the first book to reveal the story of the 140 young women and girls killed in the three worst arsenal disasters of the Civil War. These entirely preventable “accidents” happened while these “gunpowder girls” rolled ammunition for their armies in difficult and unsafe working conditions.

When we think about how far we’ve come as a society, we can’t ignore the fact that child labor was once widespread and completely legal.

"Lady Clerks Leaving the Treasury," from Harper's Weekly, 1865.

"Lady Clerks Leaving the Treasury," from Harper's Weekly, 1865.

Ladies did men’s jobs decades before “Rosie the Riveter.”

The U.S. government was tiny compared with today, but when war broke out between North and South, thousands of jobs were abandoned by men entering the army. In many cases women were hired in their places. They were usually paid half the wage of the men for doing the same work. They were fired immediately after the end of the war.

But why such a dangerous job?

When the Civil War broke out, teenage boys were hired at arsenals to make musket and rifle cartridges. However, the boys were hard to manage. They liked to fool around. An Allegheny Arsenal supervisor found unlit matches in rooms where gunpowder was stored—most likely left there by boys sneaking a smoke. Another time, matches were found packed with cartridge bundles, another dangerous mistake.

The arsenal’s commander wrote to his superior: “I have discharged all the boys at work in that portion of the laboratory, and will supply their places with females.” He — like most men — believed women would be more likely to obey the rules. 

Unfortunately, other hazards of working around gunpowder were not addressed until after tragedy struck.

‘In Anderson’s hands, history is as riveting as any best-selling novel.’
— School Library Journal, March 2017

“Clear, engaging prose … The employment plight of so many women of the era — few jobs and low pay — is amply illustrated. This grim, enlightening tale is most likely to appeal to those who seek out disaster stories or have an interest in American history. ”— Kirkus Reviews, September 2016 issue

“Wow! This story is unprecedented. The accounts of the explosions themselves are as harrowing as narrative gets.” —Elizabeth Norton, Commerce Township (Mich.) Community Library

“The book is social history at its finest, telling little-known stories of workers, immigrants, young people, and women who fueled the engine of war from the home front.” — Booklist, American Library Association

Here is what Pulitzer Prize winning historian James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, had to say after reading Gunpowder Girls:

“Outstanding.... Reveals details previously unfamiliar even to Civil War historians. We can now add their names to the human toll of America’s greatest conflict.”