Adelina Myers, a 12 or perhaps 13 year-old girl born in Virginia of immigrant German-American parents, was killed in an explosion while working her shift at the ammunition factory, the city’s worst wartime accident during the American Civil War, on Friday the 13th, March 1863. Among the victims were girls even younger than Adelina. Blame for the accident was placed on Irish-born teenager Mary Ryan who made a deathbed confession she had banged a tray of friction primers against a table to knock them loose.
Adelina and Mary were young, female and foreign, groups tapped for their labor and used by the war’s proponents, in propaganda, song and poetry, to wave chivalrous cause or nativist threats intended to boost the war effort. Forty-one of the accident’s 44 dead were women, who could better fill and cap ammunition, their smaller fingers assembling as many as 1,200 cartridges a day.
Thousands of dollars were raised in donations as the city mourned the three men and forty-one women and “little indigent girls” killed or hospitalized, who would die over the following weeks.
These women and girls, later overlooked for their role in the Civil War, lived and died 80 years before the WWII song Rosie the Riveter would celebrate female wartime workers. Prior to the Civil War, Richmond’s women had few opportunities to earn wages, beyond the modest compensation offered by traditional household work, notably as domestic servants. Factory work paid better and afforded more social contact, amidst a diverse workforce including immigrants and the native-born. One can only speculate what this meant to the young Adelina Myers.
Written by Eric Bright (he/him) from Amherst, MA, USA. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram! This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.
- U.S. Census manuscripts, City of Richmond and City of Portsmouth, 1860.
- Richmond Whig newspaper, 14 and 16 March 1863.
- “Brown’s Island munitions explosion was worst wartime disaster in Richmond.” Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper, 4 March 2013.
- Jones, J.B. The Diary of a Rebel War Clerk, Vol 1. Philadelphia: J.P. Lippincot & Co.,
- “Rosie the Riveter.” Wikipedia, 1 August 2019.
- Bright, Eric. “Nothing to Fear from the Influence of Foreigners”: The Patriotism of Richmond’s German-Americans during the Civil War. 1999. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.