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Fatal Cruise of the Princeton

Fatal Cruise of the Princeton

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Captain Robert F. Stockton, who had overseen the construction of the Princeton as well as the Peacemaker, was a politician and businessman as well as an accomplished naval officer. He later was instrumental in the United States' seizure of California during the Mexican War.

 

John Sable, a black waiter, had announced the news of the explosion at Alexandria's Gadsby's Hotel, and word spread quickly through the city. 14 South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun learned of it from his son Patrick, who was on board when the accident occurred.

The explosion of the Peacemaker was the greatest peacetime disaster the young country had ever known. The Senate and House of Representatives immediately adjourned to reconvene for the funerals. The Princeton sailed to the Washington Navy Yard, where crowds poured onto the wharf the next day to wait, hour after hour, until each coffin, borne by seamen and escorted by naval officers, left the ship to be loaded into one of six hearses drawn up side by side on the wharf. Five of the coffins were mahogany. The sixth, bearing the president's slave, was made of cherry. 15

The crowds parted to make way as the horse-drawn hearses began their unhappy journey across town. More than sixty carriages pulled into line and followed the cortege to the White House, where Tyler ordered that the bodies lie in state until the funeral Saturday morning. Somewhere along the route, the hearse bearing Armistead's coffin had peeled off and delivered the slave's remains to his family.

Drawn to the tragic scene, spectators filed past the five remaining flag-draped caskets all day Friday to view the dead lying in state in the East Room, converted from its usual brilliant festivity into what one observer called "a sepulchral chamber, cold and silent as the grave." 16 Four of the five caskets were open for public viewing. The fifth was closed, probably empty because the body of Virgil Maxcy, the U.S. chargé to Belgium, had already been moved to his family estate on the West River in Maryland for burial. A well-known political figure and close friend of Calhoun's, Maxcy was nonetheless represented in the funeral procession through the capital.


Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Gilmer had asked that the Peacemaker be fired one last time during the fatal 28 February 1844 cruise. When the great gun then exploded, Gilmer and Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur were the most prominent of the six persons killed.
 

No mention was made in the public ceremonies of Armistead. The National Intelligencer, reporting the fatality a day after the other newspapers, said, "No death has occurred, in consequence of the terrible accident, besides those mentioned yesterday, except that of a servant of the President (a colored man) who was near the gun at the time of its exploding." 17 He was buried by his family the next day. 18 At 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, members of Congress boarded carriages at the Capitol and rode up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, where the funeral procession formed behind a military escort. The Executive Mansion was draped in black crepe, and each of the five hearses was drawn by a pair of jet-black horses. 19 They were followed by the president's carriage, surviving members of Tyler's cabinet, former presidents, officers and members of the Senate and House, the chief justice and associate justices of the Supreme Court, and other officials, all wearing arm bands of black crepe.

At precisely 11 o'clock, under a gray, cold sky, an artillery detachment stationed near St. John's Church across the square from the White House fired the first salute, which rattled windows across the city. Every 60 seconds, the crack of rifles and the boom of cannons echoed through town as the mile-long procession passed military units posted outside City Hall at Judiciary Square, the Capitol, and the Navy Yard. All along the route, stores were shuttered and draped in mourning cloth. Thousands of spectators lined the streets, craning their necks for a view of the grim parade. At the gates of the Congressional Burying Ground, present-day Congressional Cemetery, the coffins were lifted from their hearses and the pallbearers led a civic procession into the graveyard.

On the way back to the White House, as President Tyler's carriage passed the Capitol, something startled its horses, and the presidential carriage, shrouded in mourning, raced down Pennsylvania Avenue, which was "still crowded with hacks and vehicles of every description, and persons on horseback and on foot returning from the funeral." 20 The horses galloped through the heart of the market district at 7th Street, and people on foot hurled themselves out of the way of the president's runaway carriage. Tyler's son, John Tyler Jr., desperately tried to help the driver get the team under control, but without success.


A 19th-century view of the Washington Navy Yard. On the morning of 28 February, several hundred members of Washington's elite had crowded its wharf in anticipation of a festive cruise on board the Princeton . The next day, crowds gathered there to view six coffins being carried off the steamer.
 

When the carriage reached Galabrun's European Hotel at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 14th Street, where the Willard Hotel stands today, an unidentified black man stepped out and stopped the team, saving the president from harm for the second time in four days. Tyler, who had become the first "president by accident" upon the death of William Henry Harrison after barely a month in office, was forever tagged "His Accidency."

In a special message to Congress, the president announced that the Princeton disaster was not caused by carelessness or inattention of the captain or crew. A naval court of inquiry hastily absolved Captain Stockton of blame. 21 In true Washington tradition, no one was held responsible and nobody lost his job.

Stockton went on to command the Pacific fleet during the Mexican War, helped to conquer California, and served in the U.S. Senate from New Jersey. The second enormous gun on board the Princeton, the Oregon, never fired a shot in anger. After the vessel was found to be rotting and was broken up in 1849, the great cannon was removed and rests today on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.

  1. St. George L. Sioussat, ed., "The Accident Aboard the USS Princeton , February 28, 1844: A Contemporary Newsletter," Pennsylvania History, July 1937. back to article
  2. Description of cannon firing and ability are from Donald B. Webster Jr., "The Beauty and Chivalry of the United States Assembled," American Heritage , Vol. XVII, No. 1 (December 1965). back to article
  3. From the Journal of Commerce , February 28, 1844, reprinted in the Liberator, March 8, 1844. back to article
  4. E.F. Ellet, The Court Circles of the Republic (New York: J.D. Dennison, 1869), pp. 355-356. back to article
  5. From the Journal of Commerce , February 28, 1844, reprinted in the Liberator, March 8, 1844. back to article
  6. Samuel John Bayard, A Sketch of the Life of Com. Robert F. Stockton (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1856). back to article
  7. E.F. Ellet, The Court Circles of the Republic (New York: J.D. Dennison, 1869), pp. 355-356. back to article
  8. William A. Degregorio and Connie Jo Dickerson, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents (New York: Random House, 1997), p. 157. Slave's name from the Journal of Commerce , February 28, 1844, reprinted in the Liberator , March 8, 1844. back to article
  9. Lee M. Pearson, "Princeton and the Peacemaker," Technology and Culture , Vol. VII, No.2 (Spring 1966). back to article
  10. From the Journal of Commerce , February 28, 1844, reprinted in the Liberator , March 8, 1844. back to article
  11. The Madisonian , February 28, 1844, reprinted in the Maine Farmer , March 7, 1844; The Liberator, March 8, 1844, p. 3. back to article
  12. Donald B. Webster Jr., "The Beauty and Chivalry of the United States Assembled," American Heritage , Vol. XVII, No.1 (December 1965). back to article
  13. Lucia B. Cutts, ed., Memoirs and Letters of Dolly [sic] Madison, Wife of James Madison, President of the United States, edited by her Grand-Niece (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin,1886), p. 205. back to article
  14. Henry A. Wise, Seven Decades of the Union (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1872), p. 220. back to article
  15. St. George L. Sioussat, ed., "The Accident Aboard the USS Princeton , February 28, 1844: A Contemporary Newsletter", Pennsylvania History , July 1937. back to article
  16. National Intelligencer , March 4, 1844. back to article
  17. National Intelligencer , March 4, 1844. back to article
  18. Sioussat, "The Accident Aboard the USS Princeton , February 28, 1844: A Contemporary Newsletter." back to article
  19. Sioussat, "The Accident Aboard the USS Princeton , February 28, 1844: A Contemporary Newsletter". back to article
  20. National Intelligencer , March 4, 1844. back to article
  21. Nash, "The Princeton Explosion." back to article

Ann Blackman is the author of Wild Rose: Rose O'Neale Greenhow , Civil War Spy (Random House, 2005) from which this article is adapted. Her other books include The Spy Next Door (Little, Brown, 2002), which she co-authored with Elaine Shannon, and Seasons of Her Life: A Biography of Madeline Korbel Albright (Scribner, 1998).

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