Angelica on Anderson, 'Gunpowder Girls: The True Stories of Three Civil War Tragedies'

Tanya Anderson
Kathryn Angelica

Tanya Anderson. Gunpowder Girls: The True Stories of Three Civil War Tragedies. Kansas City: Quindaro Press, 2016. Illustrations. 157 pp. $16.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-9669258-7-6

Reviewed by Kathryn Angelica (University of Connecticut) Published on H-War (July, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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In Gunpowder Girls: The True Stories of Three Civil War Tragedies, Tanya Anderson provides a vivid and accessible account of the disastrous conditions of munitions factories in the nineteenth century. A slim text, the book focuses on three military arsenals: the Allegheny Arsenal in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania; an unnamed Confederate arsenal in Richmond, Virginia; and the Greenleaf Point Arsenal in Washington, DC. Anderson centers the book on the explosions and tragedies that occurred in these spaces, resulting in the death of hundreds of young women. With descriptive imagery and imaginative prose, Anderson illustrates the often-ignored labor of nineteenth-century working-class women and children. More importantly, Gunpowder Girls highlights the patriotic nature of munitions labor, naming these women as additional casualties of the war effort. The tragedies described in this book can also be seen as predecessors to influential events like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 that drove regulations and reform in the twentieth century.

Gunpowder Girls would be best used as a supplementary text accompanying a course exploring the broader political, social, and racial transformations of the Civil War era. While providing an intensely detailed account of the experiences and struggles of the women working in these factories, Anderson does not provide adequate context of the war itself. Additionally, more weight could be placed on the realities of these factories. Working-class women and children labored in deadly conditions to construct weaponry used to injure former countrymen over the protection of the institution of slavery. The communities housing these arsenals were undoubtedly faced with the all-encompassing nature of the war itself. Additionally, the experiences of working-class women in Pennsylvania in the Union differed greatly from those in Richmond, Virginia, and an illustration of the interracial working-class space of Washington, DC, also would have added to the narrative. While this labor is portrayed as patriotic, it is also true that many women and children sought these high-risk jobs as a last resort to provide for families struggling with the loss of enlisted men's income. Anderson does, however, provide an account of the diversity of these spaces in an inset about African American women laborers, arguing that a hierarchy of labor largely excluded free black women from munitions work.

Intended as young adult nonfiction, Gunpowder Girls remains accessible to a wide range of readers while at the same time displaying the tools of the historical process. Anderson's work demonstrates the role of archival materials in historical writing for younger audiences. The book includes contemporary maps of the arsenals, images of archival sources like payroll records, and data sets outlining the names and ages of women injured and killed in munitions explosions. The book also provides helpful insets throughout to explain additional concepts, such as the process of constructing rifle cartridges and the impact of grief on Abraham Lincoln's presidency. Photographs of the memorials and monuments constructed for the women killed in these disasters highlight the role of historical memory. Perhaps more importantly, they serve as a reminder that historical inquiry and explorations can begin in our very hometowns by turning a more critical eye on the world around us.

Citation: Kathryn Angelica. Review of Anderson, Tanya, Gunpowder Girls: The True Stories of Three Civil War Tragedies. H-War, H-Net Reviews. July, 2020. URL:

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