Anita J. Morgan
The federal government’s call to arms at the start of the Civil War caught state governments unprepared to equip their troops. Supplies of arms, gunpowder, and ammunition were meager. Indiana had only 6000 mostly broken and rusty rifles and muskets at the start of the war scattered around the state in the hands of state militia. Desperate for arms, the federal government, Indiana, and other states competed against each other on world markets to buy guns to equip troops. Northern states established arsenals to repair and refit firearms purchased from arms manufacturers and dealers. These state arsenals also produced gunpowder and ammunition to supply state and federal troops. The Indiana Arsenal employed hundreds of women and men to produce firearms and ammunition that the federal War Department purchased to supply its troops.
In April, 1861, days after President Lincoln’s call for troops, Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton appointed Herman Sturm, a civil engineer and chemist by training, to establish and run a state arsenal to refurbish state arms and fabricate ammunition. Sturm reported that on 27 April 1861 he began to teach volunteer troops from the 11th Indiana the finer points of cartridge construction. This enterprise began in an Indianapolis blacksmith shop; operations subsequently moved to different locations in central Indianapolis and were staffed by civilians. As demand for ammunition rose, the state built three temporary buildings just north of the State House on ground the state owned. A powder magazine also went up at the former State Fair site in what is now Military Park. A reporter for the Indianapolis Daily Journal toured the facility north of the State House in June, 1861. In one building he found an apartment for guards, a room on the west side of the building for storage and for the work done by “men and boys,” and on the east side a room for “women and girls.” The north side of this structure had a furnace for melting lead and another for “moulding balls.” The Journal took a keen interest in the early workings of the arsenal and ran several short stories about it throughout the month. When cold weather came, the establishment moved to “a three story brick building” immediately south of the State House on Washington Street.
While the state arsenal was going through its many relocations, Governor Morton successfully lobbied the Lincoln administration and Congress to establish a federal arsenal at Indianapolis. Work began on the federal arsenal in 1863 on land located east of the city purchased from Indianapolis businessman, Calvin Fletcher, Jr..
In 1862, after a massive explosion at Pittsburgh’s federal Allegheny Arsenal killed seventy-eight workers (mostly women) and injured around seventy more, Sturm thought it would be prudent to move the state arsenal “some distance from the populated portion of the city.” The chosen location was next to the suburban site where the federal government was building its arsenal. Temporary buildings went up on the site for state operations. The state arsenal continued at this location through early 1864 when it ceased to operate; the federal arsenal began operations after the end of the war.
About 100 women and 50 men made up the first group of employees. At first these workers were paid by the day. Later, Sturm divided the work by type of process and paid the employees a specific rate for every thousand pieces produced. The workers balked at this change and some employees quit. According to Sturm, those who remained adjusted to the new procedure and soon made as much money, or more, than before. By September 1861 the arsenal employed about 250 workers. Payrolls were difficult to meet due to delayed payments from the federal government which purchased much of what the arsenal produced. Several times Sturm borrowed money from local individuals (including himself) and from local banks to meet the approximately $6000 monthly payrolls. At one point no money was available and workers were issued “certificates” or scrip which several Indianapolis businesses and banks reportedly honored.
The Indianapolis Daily Sentinel of 26 June 1861 provided the first detailed description of arsenal employees. The reporter of this Democratic Party organ sarcastically stated that “ninety blushing young virgins and elderly matrons are constantly employed . . . it is a beautiful and patriotic sight to see the young and tender happy in this bloody work. They laugh and chat gaily, and the older and more experienced smile benignantly as they roll up the balls and fix the fatal charge intended to let daylight through some man’s heart.” Women made, pinched, filled, and bundled cartridges and rolled cap cylinders. They also made “bags” for one and one-half cent per bag. Men in the arsenal were armorers, foremen, gunsmiths, arms cleaners, cutters, moulders, packers, and worked “strapping artillery ammunition.” Other men were clerks and a couple of boys served as messengers.
Reports of the number of arsenal employees ranged from 100 to 700. Governor Morton, in his address to the General Assembly in 1863, specifically stated that the arsenal gave “profitable occupation” to those “who otherwise would have wanted the means of support. My direction to Colonel Sturm was to give the preference to those whose relatives and supporters were in the field.” Bread Ration lists of the state-run bakery that supplied food to soldiers and soldiers’ families in Indianapolis confirm that soldiers’ wives and children worked in the arsenal.
One woman, Emily Muzzy, had two children to support while her husband, Bennett, fought with the 63rd Indiana regiment. She worked at the arsenal twice in 1863 and appeared on the bread ration list in 1865.
One of the city’s most influential men, Calvin Fletcher, Sr., noted in his diary that the arsenal employees were relatives of soldiers and that they were “well paid.” Fletcher overstated the payments to the female workers. While Sturm’s official arsenal report said that workers were paid by the piece and not the hour, this was true only for women. Men who were employed by the arsenal made an hourly wage. Women’s wages were very low and it is difficult to believe that their work could have sustained their families—and indeed the presence of some of the women on the bread ration list would indicate this was true. That would also explain the presence of what appears to be more than one member of a family—sisters, mothers and daughters—working together at the arsenal.
One of the most interesting and controversial employees at the state arsenal was the woman who signed the payroll register as “Lauretta DeCaulp.” DeCaulp went by several names over the course of her life, including Loreta Janeta Velazquez, Harry T. Buford, Laura Williams, and Alice Williams. In 1876, DeCaulp published her still controversial memoir, The Woman in Battle. The book tells the story of a Cuban-born woman who, dressed as a man, became a lieutenant in the Confederate army, courted women, went to prison, and at some point along the way married twice and became a Confederate spy. When the book was released, former Confederate General Jubal Early blasted it as outright fiction and pointed out some factual errors in the text to emphasize his point. Since then, the book has been fodder for historians and Civil War enthusiasts and few can agree as to her function or effectiveness as a spy.
In her memoir, DeCaulp recounts her employment at the Indiana arsenal. She arrived, she writes, in Indianapolis and sought a way to enter Camp Morton where Confederate prisoners were held. She hoped to foment an uprising there by passing along information about the lack of Union troops in the area. Failing in that plan, she determined to remain in Indianapolis and asked Governor Morton for work as a clerk for the state, saying she was a soldiers’ widow. Morton supposedly told her there was no work for her as a clerk, but that employment could be obtained at the arsenal and he sent her there with a note. She packed cartridges with eighteen girls whom she describes as “light-headed things.” DeCaulp then devised a plan to blow up the arsenal, but in the end could not bring herself to do so because she could not avoid “destroying a number of lives.” She worked at the arsenal for about two weeks, she says, and then left the city. Whether her memoir is truthful remains in question, but records in the Indiana State Archives attest that she worked in the state arsenal and wrote to Governor Morton on the pretext of recruiting Confederate prisoners to become Union recruits.
The Indiana arsenal sold large quantities of gunpowder and ammunition to the War Department for use by Union troops during the war. Along with men, hundreds of women who otherwise may not have been able to earn livelihoods worked in it. The General Assembly investigated its finances and found them in order; in the end the arsenal turned a profit for the state. The successful operation of the state arsenal was a result of cooperation between state and federal governments and the efforts of hundreds of civilian employees during the mobilization of Northern society for war.
Giesberg, Judith. Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
Terrell, W. H. H., Indiana in the War of the Rebellion: Report of the Adjutant General. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1960. Reprint of volume one of the eight-volume original report, 1869.
Thornbrough, Emma Lou. Indiana in the Civil War Era, 1850-1880. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau and Indiana Historical Society, 1965.
Velazquez, Loreta Janeta. The Woman in Battle. Jesse Aleman, editor. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. Reprint of Hartford: T. Belknap, 1876.
Wilson, Mark R. The Business of Civil War: Military Mobilization and the State, 1861-1865. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.