Collections Document of the Month Women's History

March 2017 Documents of the Month | Friction Primer Papers

By John Coski

The Confederacy’s greatest home front disaster occurred on Friday, March 13, 1863, when Mary Ryan, a young woman working in the Confederate States Laboratory on Brown’s Island in Richmond, roughly handled a friction primer – a device used to fire cannon. She accidentally caused an explosion that destroyed the lab, killing more than 45 of the female workers. The story of Mary Ryan is a staple of the American Civil War Museum’s educational programming at Historic Tredegar; the Brown’s Island disaster also will be a topic of a March 11th talk by Tanya Anderson on her book, Gunpowder Girls.

The Museum’s library collection contains a valuable manuscript collection of John W. Mallet, a scientist who was superintendent of the Confederate States Laboratories in Macon, Georgia, which developed and tested explosive ordnance. The collection consists primarily of reports of ordnance inspections and tests and of technical drawings of machinery. Among the documents are these two about friction primers – the simple devices that sparked the Brown’s Island disaster.