Finding the Untold Story: The Making of Gunpowder Girls: The True Stories of Three Civil War Tragedies by Tanya Anderson
I look for stories that haven’t been told. When you’re a nonfiction writer, that’s not as easy as you might think. I’m dependent on pesky things called “sources.” But that’s not all. I have to make sure my sources are accurate. These days, that is not so easy to do. With so much being written and published, on the internet especially, a nonfiction writer has to dig through layers of material to find the facts. So much has been hashed and rehashed that, after a while, I despair ever finding something new and fresh. So, I usually start with a broad search and hope to find a sliver of something surprising that screams out: “People need to know about this!”
That’s what happened to me more than a year ago. I was approached by a new publishing house that wanted to focus on publishing historical nonfiction for young adults. The publisher had read my book, Tillie Pierce: Teen Eyewitness to the Battle of Gettysburg, and felt I was an author with whom he and his staff would like to work. The only topic he suggested for my next book was something that could ride along with Tillie: something about women’s roles during the Civil War.
Talk about broad a broad topic! It was as wide as the U.S. in 1861—coast to coast. It was as deep as the Grand Canyon. And, as I started reading, reading, reading, it felt as heavy as Mt. Rushmore. I read about nurses. I devoured books and articles about female spies and soldiers. I learned more about the Sanitary Commission than I will ever find useful (unless I get on Jeopardy and the clue is: “Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton, and Louisa May Alcott were part of this organization that provided supplies, nurses, and money to the Union troops during and after the American Civil War.”) Six months into my research, I was panicked because nothing had spoken to my writer’s heart. So many of these women and these roles had been written about already, even for young readers. What could I add that would be meaningful?
Then I found a book that focused on women on the home front. Nina Silber’s Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War focused on the women left at home when their men went to war and the ways they carried on the fight for their families’ survival while finding ways to support the troops in battle. In this book, I discovered a group of women and girls I’d never known existed. Hundreds, if not thousands, of female workers filled in at Union and Confederate arsenals when the men went to fight.
Of course, I knew about the women of World War II who did that—women who were represented by the Rosie the Riveter icon. But that was the 1940s, four score years after the Civil War. Times were different enough by then that it wasn’t much of a surprise that women could do factory work and become homeland heroes during a monstrous war. Had women already done this kind of thing in previous wars? As far back as the Civil War? Yes, they had.
Silber told a short but harrowing story of the Allegheny Arsenal, just outside of Pittsburgh. In fewer than four pages, the author described the women’s work: making rifle cartridges for piecework pay. These were mostly poor immigrant women—and some of them were mere children, as young as ten. Then she shared the shocking tale of an 1862 explosion that destroyed several buildings and took the lives of 78 people, most of whom were these girls and women. In all of my years reading about the Civil War, I had never ever heard that story before. I was shocked. Then I was enraged. How could we not have been told about this? How could these workers’ lives mean so little that their deaths had been forgotten, despite the fact that more nonfiction books are written about the Civil War than any other topic? A fire ignited in my gut as I read and reread those pages. I told my husband, “THIS is the story I have to tell.”
Before I approached my publisher, I did more research. Was there enough material to support a whole book? I remember so many times getting queries from writers when I was an editorial director and, while the topic was terrific, I knew it could be, at best, only an article. It takes a lot to make a substantial book. So I dug in. Not much had been written, but thanks to a couple of blogs focused on women in the Civil War and internet archives of newspapers and magazines, I began to build the story.
But it wasn’t one story. I was appalled to discover that, while the Allegheny Arsenal disaster was the worst civilian casualty of the war, it was not the only one. Two more explosions had the very same effect: the deaths and maiming of dozens of women and girls. One took place in Richmond, Virginia, at the Confederate States Arsenal in 1863. The other was in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., at the arsenal there, in 1864. I contacted the publisher, and approval was immediate. I had a book to write.
More surprising to me than the events themselves was finding Civil-War-era newspaper articles from all three areas, articles that relayed fact, but more than that, dripped with the anguished voices of those reporting the awful events. Several excerpts found their place in the book.
These victims now have a voice. I was thrilled to learn that THE Civil War writer, James McPherson, read and endorsed the book. Even he understood that this story had not been told before:
Thoroughly researched and beautifully written, this tragic story of 140 girls and young women killed by gunpowder explosions in three arsenals, where they produced ammunition for Civil War armies, reveals details previously unfamiliar even to Civil War historians. We can now add their names to the human toll of America’s greatest conflict. —James M. McPherson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
Their story is finally out. It’s a sad tale, with no surprise ending or good-wins-in-the-end kind of theme. It tells the truth because it’s nonfiction. And the truth is sometimes painful.
As the young girl says at the end of the book’s trailer, “It’s not a novel.”
Tanya Anderson taught high-school history and English for a dozen years, teaching the facts and telling the stories that would make students care about the past. She became her students’ “editor,” pushing them to write, write, write and to write well. After a move to a state where her teaching certificate was not recognized, she answered an ad as a children’s book editor. That led her to a career as an editor, author, and marketer of books for young readers. She lives seasonally in Ohio and Florida with her husband Eric, her dog Kirby, and kitty Ellie.
Both books mentioned here are available from Quindaro Press, at any bookstore, and online. Gunpowder Girls is available as a hardcover, an ebook, and an audiobook.