Once in a while you run across an obscure event from the past that, while astonishing, is mostly forgotten. And so it is with the story I am about to tell you.
In the days of yore, long before Sam Colt patented the .45 pistol that became known as the Peacemaker, there was a bigger gun with the same name that should live on in infamy.
The story begins about 1841 when the keel was laid for a combination sailing and steamship frigate to be christened the Princeton.
The name was given by Robert Stockton, son of a U.S. Senator and grandson of one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence. Stockton not only named the Princeton after his hometown, but he was a principal designer and the ship’s captain. He also became instrumental in convincing Congress to turn the United States into a global naval power.
After serving with distinction in the war of 1812, Stockton was appointed a commodore in the U.S. Navy. Dreaming of the United States becoming a great sea power, he lobbied Presidents William Henry Harrison and later John Tyler to build what would then be considered a modern fleet – one powered by steam and sail and sporting enormous guns.
The Princeton was the first result of his effort. Though not as large as Stockton wanted, the ship was a wonder for the time – driven by sail and coal-burning, steam-fired propellers, it was clad in iron and was the first Navy ship to have engines below the waterline.
The Princeton was originally designed to carry one 12-inch gun weighing some 10 tons and capable of firing 200-pound projectiles five miles.
The first gun that was ordered was called the Oregon and it was built by the British firm Mersey Iron Works in Liverpool. This was a muzzle loader intended to fire sacks of black powder weighing up to 50 pounds.
To handle the pressure generated by that much powder, the breech of the Oregon was strengthened by encircling it with red hot iron bands that shrank and tightened after cooling. (One account I read said the iron bands were placed after a crack was spotted in initial testing.)
The original design of the ship called for just one big gun but Stockton wanted two so he rushed to design and commission a second gun, the Peacemaker, which was built by Hogg and DeLamater of New York City.
Stockton figured he could skip adding the strengthening bands by simply forging a thicker breech. The result was the Peacemaker, weighing in at 27,000 pounds. It was installed toward the bow of the Princeton with little testing. And this is where the story becomes a horror show.
To promote the ship’s design and lobby for an expanded navy, Stockton steamed the Princeton up the Potomac to the capitol. On Feb. 28, 1844, he invited a crowd of some 400 dignitaries to join him for a cruise down river.
Participants included President John Tyler, members of his cabinet, former first lady Dolley Madison, congressional leaders, members of the diplomatic corps, friends and family members.
To impress his guests Stockton fired the Peacemaker three times (some accounts said two) as he was headed down river, blowing up chunks of winter ice with tremendous splashes.
A fourth firing was set as a salute to George Washington as the ship turned around at Mount Vernon, about 13 miles downriver from the capitol.
When Stockton touched off the fourth shot, disaster struck. The left side of the breech blew out, spraying red hot shrapnel through the crowd. It decapitated Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer, just 10 days on the job, and also killed Secretary of State Abel Upshur, second in command Capt. Beverley Kennon and prominent lawyer Virgil Maxcy. Two sailors and Tyler’s black valet, a slave, also were killed. Up to 20 others were reported injured, including Stockton. Tyler had gone down to have lunch and was not injured.
Another of those killed was wealthy New York businessman David Gardiner. He apparently was invited because Tyler, 54 and widowed, was trying to convince Gardiner’s 20-year-old daughter Julia to marry him. Julia’s mom initially refused the marriage because of the age difference but it was Tyler who comforted and carried the grief stricken Julia off the ship after the death of her father. The mom eventually relented and the two eventually were married.
Now you might have thought some heads, like Stockton’s, would roll as a result of the tragedy. That didn’t happen, thanks partly to a proclamation from Tyler to the effect that, “Stuff happens.”
Stockton was cleared of any wrongdoing and the Swedish engineer that helped him design the Princeton and the British made gun, declined to come to Washington to testify. The government moved on, leaving Stockton, once recovered, in command of the Princeton.
Stockton took the ship to Galveston, and the Princeton played a key role during the Mexican-American War.
Stockton then sailed for California where he commanded a small fleet that took Los Angeles. He also assisted in the capture of San Diego, becoming the second military governor of California. The city of Stockton is named after him.
Stockton resigned from the Navy in 1850, the year California became a state, and the following year he was elected a U.S. senator from New Jersey.
Somehow in my high school and college history classes I managed to miss this story and my guess is you did too. I hope you found it as fascinating as I did.