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Commodore Robert Field Stockton

Engraved portrait of Robert Field Stockton by .B. Hall, from a painting on ivory by Newton, London, 1840. (Photo: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)
Engraved portrait of Robert Field Stockton by .B. Hall, from a painting on ivory by Newton, London, 1840. (Photo: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

Commodore Robert Field Stockton's career spanned U.S. history from the War of 1812 to the Civil War, and the realms of military and politics. The grandson of Declaration of Independence signer Richard Stockton Sr., he was born in Princeton, N.J., in 1795 and entered The College of New Jersey there at the age of 13. Excited by the prospect of war with Great Britain, however, he abandoned his studies and entered the Navy, receiving a commission as a midshipman and an assignment to the frigate President in 1811.

Stockton's natural cool during such actions as the defense of Baltimore and Alexandria against the British won him the sobriquet "Fighting Bob." Stockton was promoted to lieutenant in 1814. He served in diverse locales during his naval career, and while on duty in West Africa helped negotiate a treaty that led to the founding of the state of Liberia on Sept. 4, 1821. Stockton resigned his commission in 1826 for his first foray into the world of politics but returned to active duty as a captain in 1838.

When John Tyler won the presidency in 1840, he offered Stockton the position of Secretary of the Navy. The young officer declined, but asked for and received permission to construct the first steam-powered warship. The U.S. steam frigate Princeton was completed in 1844. Its inaugural cruise down the Potomac was considered such an event that the president, Cabinet members, and several congressmen were aboard. But the mood changed when one the ship's guns, the "Peacemaker," blew up, killing two Cabinet officers and several crew members. Stockton was exonerated from blame for the incident.

As commander-in-chief of the Pacific Squadron at the start of the Mexican War, Capt. Stockton played an instrumental role in securing the territory of California for the United States. He and his troops marched into Los Angeles on Aug. 13, 1846, and took the city with no opposition. California's capital city, Stockton, bears his name.

After the war, Stockton resigned again from the Navy and became active in business and politics, serving as a U.S. senator from New Jersey from 1851-53. In 1863, he was appointed to command the New Jersey militia when the Confederates invaded Pennsylvania. After the war, he retired to his family estate, Morven, near Princeton, where he died on Oct. 7, 1866.

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