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Fatal Cruise of the Princeton

Navy History

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    Fatal Cruise of the Princeton

    By Ann Blackman

    Navy History, September, 2005

    The explosion of the massive cannon nicknamed the "Peacemaker" on board the revolutionary USS Princeton struck the highest strata of Washington society and the lowest.

    On a late February day in 1844, a long line of black carriages drew up to the wharf at the Washington Navy Yard and dropped off the city's social elite, nearly 400 ladies and gentlemen in elegant attire and ready to celebrate. Captain Robert F. Stockton of Princeton, New Jersey, had assembled the very cream of the capital, including President John Tyler, for a demonstration cruise on board the pride of the United States Navy, the steam frigate USS Princeton . The festive voyage, however, did not go as planned. In a flash and a bang the cruise became the setting for the young republic's worst peacetime disaster, a calamity that claimed the lives of six of the passengers—including two members of Tyler's cabinet.

    The Princeton was a marvel of modern engineering. Stockton, whose grandfather was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, had enticed Swedish-born John Ericsson, later famous for the Civil War-era Monitor, to come to the United States to design the first steam-powered warship driven by a screw propeller instead of a paddlewheel. She carried the two largest guns in the U.S. Navy: the "Oregon" fired 12-inch cannonballs and had been built in England to Ericsson's design; an even larger 12-inch cannon called the "Peacemaker" weighed more than 27,000 pounds and had been cast in the United States under Stockton's supervision. Stockton guided construction of the Princeton, using some of his family's wealth to help finance the project when it cost more than the Navy was willing to spend. After the Princeton was built, he was—not surprisingly—given command.

    Captain Stockton had already taken a number of senators, members of the House of Representatives, and newspaper reporters out to show off his new warship, but the cruise down the Potomac River on Wednesday, 28 February 1844 was to be one of the crowning days in the Navy's 68-year history. President Tyler; Julia Gardiner, the widowed president's twenty-three-year-old fiancée; Miss Gardiner's father, Colonel David Gardiner of New York; and former first lady and capital doyenne Dolley Madison, then 76, topped the guest list. Several members of Tyler's cabinet and a number of congressional leaders were on hand as well. Steam launches ferried the guests out to the 164-foot Princeton, at anchor off Alexandria, the Virginia port town just downriver from Washington.

    Stockton, in full dress uniform, welcomed the guests as they were piped aboard his ship. Ericsson stayed away, his relationship with the captain having soured in part over Stockton's insistence on mounting the Peacemaker, which Ericsson considered unproven.

    It was a clear, beautiful morning, uncharacteristically warm for late winter. The water sparkled in the sun. After the ship weighed anchor and her 42-pounder carronades fired a national salute of twenty-six guns, one for every state in the Union, the sailors pulled off their hats, gave three cheers, and the brightly clad Marine Band—"The President's Own"—played "The Star Spangled Banner." As men high in the rigging unfurled her sails, the Princeton moved majestically down the Potomac. 1

    Below Fort Washington, where the river widens, gunners rammed 40 pounds of powder and a 12-inch iron ball down the muzzle of the Peacemaker. When the cannon was fired, guests were startled by the roar. The 228-pound ball "arched into the air, hit the water two miles away and skipped along the surface for another mile until it disappeared from sight," as one historian described the scene. The visitors applauded the mighty shot. With a maximum charge of 50 pounds of powder, the cannon could fire a ball five miles. 2 The gun was discharged a second time, again to an appreciative crowd, and as the ship passed Mount Vernon, the home of the late President Washington, the band struck up "Hail to the Chief." 3

    At about 3 p.m., most of the 200 ladies retired below deck to begin an elegant lunch of roast fowl, ham, and fine wines brought for the occasion from Philadelphia. As they finished, Secretary of State Abel Upshur stood to give the customary toast to the president. Accidentally picking up an empty bottle of champagne, he remarked lightly that the "dead bodies" must be cleared away before he could begin. "There are plenty of living bodies to replace the dead ones," Captain Stockton joked and passed the secretary of state a full bottle of bubbly. 4 Then President Tyler stood to give a return toast: "To the three great guns: the Princeton, her commander and the Peacemaker." 5 The ladies clapped appreciatively. As several cabinet officers left the table to make room for other guests, an officer whispered to Stockton that one of the guests wished the great gun to be fired again. "No more guns tonight," Stockton replied. But when he heard that the request had come from Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer, Stockton interpreted it as an order and went immediately to the deck. 6 There was an announcement that the gunners were about to fire the Peacemaker for a third and final time to honor George Washington. "Though secretary of war, I do not like this firing and believe I shall move out of the way," joked William Wilkins, who had held his post for less than two weeks. 7 The president started up the ladder to observe the shot but paused to listen to his son-in-law, William Waller, sing a patriotic ditty about 1776. Just as the young man came to the word "Washington" in the lyrics, the great gun exploded, hurling fiery iron in all directions.

    Launched in 1843, the USS Princeton featured a 14-inch-diameter, six-bladed screw propeller instead of paddlewheels. She received her famous 12-inch guns—the "Peacemaker" and the "Oregon"—in January 1844. The next month, the vessel was making popular trial trips down the Potomac River with passengers.


    The ship trembled, and a dense cloud of white smoke smothered the deck, making it almost impossible to see or breathe. According to the editor of the Boston Times, an eyewitness, when the smoke cleared, dead bodies and detached arms and legs littered the deck. The blast had killed Secretary of State Upshur; Secretary of the Navy Gilmer; Virgil Maxcy, the American chargé d'affaires to Belgium; Julia Gardiner's father; Beverly Kennon, the Navy's chief of construction; and the president's personal valet, a slave named Armistead. 8

    Lieutenant R.E. Thompson wrote in the Princeton's log that the gun broke off at the trunnion band and the breech and split in two. 9 Unconscious guests with open head wounds seeping dark, venous blood lay near the destroyed gun. Some of the wounded were struck deaf by the explosion, their eardrums ruptured. Upshur's arms and legs were broken and his bowels torn out. Colonel Gardiner's arms and legs were blown off. Gilmer was killed by a metal fragment from the gun that struck him in the head. Virgil Maxcy's severed arm struck a lady in the head, covering her face with blood and knocking off her bonnet. 10 The president's slave, hit by a piece of the exploding gun, died ten minutes later.

    The daughter of New Hampshire Senator Levi Woodbury was standing so close to one of those killed that her dress was spattered with blood. Another lady's dress was covered with blood and brains. Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri was blown flat on his back and suffered a concussion, and a woman who was holding his arm was thrown into the rigging, although amazingly, she was unhurt. Senator Benton was carried off and placed on a mattress.

    Captain Stockton, who was standing at the base of the gun, received severe powder burns on his face, and all the hair on his head was burned off. "My God! Would that I were dead, too," he shouted. Stockton was carried to his cabin in a state of delirium and burst into tears. 11 When President Tyler saw the bodies of his cabinet officers Upshur and Gilmer, he wept as well.

    None of the women on board was injured, but those who were below at the time were prevented from going on deck to see the bodies of their husbands, brothers, and fathers. Julia Gardiner fainted. Mrs. Gilmer became hysterical. 12 They were led off the ship as quickly as possible. Miss Gardiner was escorted to the White House. When Dolley Madison entered her drawing room, she found it "filled with anxious friends waiting to be assured of her safety," wrote Lucia B. Cutts in a memoir edited by Dolley Madison's grand niece. "She came in quietly, bowing gracefully and smiling but unable to say a word . . . nor could she ever afterwards trust herself to speak of that terrible afternoon, and she never heard it mentioned without turning pale and shuddering." 13

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