Women, children, and explosives: Making ammunition at the state arsenal

In the rush to war following the firing on Fort Sumter, Illinois Governor Richard Yates launched a crash program to arm the state’s newly enlisted troops, especially those sent to protect the strategic city of Cairo at the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. While agents visited the East in hope of purchasing supplies of muskets and cannon, officials in Springfield created a factory to produce the ammunition that would be consumed by those weapons. For more than seven months in 1861 the Illinois state arsenal employed not just men but also dozens of women and children in its explosives operation.

The factory
On April 22, 1861, an anonymous writer to the Springfield Illinois State Journal commented, “We do not know how long the present unhappy contest may continue. The public safety requires that we should rely upon ourselves” to provide the resources to protect the state from attack. That very day the
 Illinois state arsenal began operating an ammunition factory. At first the work probably was done in the arsenal building itself. Soon it would expand to rented and newly constructed buildings on and near the arsenal property. Within a month a local newspaper reported that the business was “going on briskly,” with about forty employees making about 12,000 to 14,000 musket cartridges per day. In early June workers began to produce artillery ammunition as well.

The presence of the factory brought real benefits to Springfield. The Illinois State Journal crowed in mid-June 1861 that “Altogether, this business is the means of disbursing a good quantity of gold and silver in our city.” Virtually everything needed by the operation could be purchased from local vendors. At one point ten men at the foundry of John C. Lamb cast iron shot for artillery pieces, twenty more cast musket balls for the contractor Newman & Fisk, and another twenty turned lumber by the carload into shipping cases. Dozens of others earned money assembling the different elements into finished cartridges.

During a period in July 1861, when officials worried about a potential attack in Cairo, the shop operated even on Sunday with eighty employees rolling musket cartridges or assembling artillery rounds. Two women sewed woolen powder bags for the artillery, while two men used lathes to turn the wooden sabots that held together the large iron shot and the explosive powder charges. At one point a day’s production reached 25,000 musket cartridges and 425 rounds of artillery ammunition.

The workers
From a small start of ten employees the ammunition factory workforce grew quickly. The great majority of 
the employees were women and children, some reported to be as young as eight years old. Women sewed the woolen powder bags used to create artillery rounds, and both women and children created the cartridges to be used in infantry weapons. Officials declared a priority of giving jobs to the wives of men in the army, “many of whom are strictly dependent upon their labor for their support.” The Illinois quartermaster general remarked that “the manufacture of ammunition employment was given to a large number of children, both boys and girls, from eight to sixteen years of age, who, besides helping in the maintenance of their mothers and their younger brothers and sisters . . . acquired habits of industry and became accustomed to a discipline that will have its salutary effect upon the formation of their characters.”

Pay rates varied by the type of work. Males engaged in skilled work such as turning sabots on lathe received $1.25 per day, while the great majority of the women and children received 50 cents or 33 1/3 cents per day. Judging by army ordnance manuals, ten hours made up a full day of work. Though officials claimed priority for women and children struggling for an income, a few of the less needy found jobs, including twelve-Beverly Herndon—the twelve-year-old son of Lincoln law partner William H. Herndon—and four children of factory superintendent Enoch Paine.

For all of the enthusiasm about the benefits of employing soldiers’ wives and helping children to learn good habits, producing ammunition was inherently dangerous work. In 1864 explosions at large factories in Washington, D.C., and Springfield, Massachusetts, each killed dozens of workers. Army ordnance manuals discussed the need to be conscious of safety; for example trying to prevent sparks by ordering those in the presence of black powder to wear socks or moccasins rather than shoes, and to not drag or shuffle one’s feet while walking.

The products
The Springfield arsenal operation produced musket rounds of different calibers to suit the weapons being used by infantry troops. For a time the arsenal supplied a major portion of the musket ammunition used by General John C. Frémont in Missouri. Large amounts were also sent to General George B. McClellan, then fighting in western Virginia. Each individual round consisted of a musket ball and a charge of explosive black powder wrapped together in a paper tube. The finished cartridges were then packaged in lots of ten, which were distributed to soldiers. One hundred of those packages were then boxed for shipment to the front. Click here to see more.

The artillery ammunition made at the arsenal factory consisted of a projectile, attached to a cloth bag full of explosive powder by means of a wooden sabot. The bags, sewn by women at the factory, were of wool merino or serge “closely woven” so that powder did not sift out. The sabots that brought the projectile and powder bag together were made of poplar or some other “close-grained” wood lathe-turned at the factory. Click here to see more.

Surviving records show that from April 22 to August 31 the cartridge factory at the Illinois state arsenal produced about 1.4 million rounds of ammunition for muskets and rifles, just over 8,000 for artillery pieces, and 6,000 for pistols. During the four-month campaign in 1864 to capture Atlanta, Georgia, which included several major battles, General William T. Sherman’s army reported firing just short of 22 million rounds of musket ammunition and over 149,000 rounds of artillery ammunition.

The factory closes
Factory operations closed at the end of November 1861, as the war department took over from the states the purchasing of ammunition, arms, and other military equipment. Governor Yates and other state officials protested the Federal takeover and consequent loss of control over contracting. Closing the ammunition factory was especially sad, “the employment of hundreds of little hands, thereby affording a means of support to many a desolated soldier’s household,” making it a matter of “great regret.”

Interested in learning more?
Surviving records of employees and production at the state arsenal factory are located at the Illinois State Archives in Record Series 301.082. Detailed instructions on how to produce musket and artillery ammunition are found in The Ordnance Manual for the Use of the Officers of the United States Army (1861) on pages 255–81. It can be found online at