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“The Beauty and Chivalry of the United States Assembled …”

July 2024
18min read

… aboard the Navy’s experimental new warship: the President, his lovely fiancée, members of the Cabinet, and most official Washington. The Captain pulled the landyard …

Though it was only February in muddy and unfinished Washington, D.C., balmy breezes and mild weather had given the air a touch of spring. The year was 1844, and the capital—indeed, the country as a whole—was in an exuberant mood, filled with optimism and looking eagerly toward the unlimited horizons promised by the prophets of manifest destiny. The proposed and hotly argued annexation of independent Texas, at the risk of almost certain war with Mexico, was perhaps the foremost topic of the day, though President John Tyler was also of a humor to twist the British lion’s tail a bit over the Oregon boundary.

On February 3, however, the Texas and Oregon questions were temporarily shoved aside while official Washington prepared to enjoy the newest national status symbol. Preceded by an extraordinary amount of publicity, the most technically advanced and perhaps most powerful warship the world had ever seen, the U.S. Steam Sloop Princeton , had arrived at Washington and lay anchored off Alexandria, visible evidence of the nation’s growing naval power and ambition. Every day her dashing, glory-seeking commander, Captain Robert F. Stockton, welcomed streams of influential sight-seers. On February 19, with almost the entire Congress and Cabinet on board, as well as all the newspaper reporters Stockton could collect, the Princeton for a day became an excursion ship.

As she ran down the calm Potomac, the representatives and senators, among them gruff old ex-President John Quincy Adams, enthusiastically inspected Stockton’s new toy from stem to stern. As soon as Washington had been left behind, Stockton gave the assembled throng a demonstration of the new guns, including a monster 12-inch columbiad named the “Peacemaker,” the largest cannon ever mounted on any ship. The Captain talked of Oregon and of how, with the Princeton alone, he could keep the Columbia River clear of the British. Meanwhile, his guests devoured a lunch guaranteed to win votes and influence congressmen. Tables in the main cabin groaned under ducks, turkeys, hams, and fruits. Champagne, sherry, and brandy flowed copiously. The dinner, according to Stockton at least, was provided at his own expense.

Stockton’s charm, and his bottled public relations, quickly dissipated whatever opposition might still have existed to the idea, and the cost, of the Princeton . The reporters glowed. A correspondent for the Ohio Statesman , who had accompanied two Ohio congressmen on the voyage, afterward wrote: ”… it is impossible to tell you the half that we saw and heard and enjoyed in the excursion. … A nobler and a hardier man—a man whose appearance more favorably impresses you with his qualifications as a man and a sailor—is not to be found than Captain Stockton.” The lunch and the libations had not been wasted.

The first inspection trip was, in fact, such a resounding success that Stockton immediately scheduled a second for February 28, this one for an even more select party, including President Tyler himself. He could not have hoped for a more auspicious day or a more distinguished gathering. S. J. Bayard, his biographer, described the scene:

On the 28th of February, the President, Cabinet, and a large number of members of Congress, and distinguished strangers in Washington, went on board the Princeton for an experimental excursion. The beauty and chivalry of the United States assembled at die seat of government were also present. A more gay, joyous, or delighted company seldom before were ever gathered together on the deck of any one of our national ships. It was a beautiful, bright day, and the resplendent sun blazed upon the firmament without a cloud to threaten his effulgence. The Potomac was unruffled by a breeze, its glassy surface presenting the lustre and serenity of a perfect mirror. As the Princeton, without the aid of wind or current, smoothly pursued her way as if moved by some unseen agency, no cloud of smoke marked her progress, no uncouth sounds of jarring machinery mingled with the voice of festivity which rose in pleasant harmony from the deck of the gallant vessel. There were grave matrons, mothers of the naval and army heroes of the country; there were illustrious senators and curious statesmen; and there were youth and beauty, light-hearted and joyous. There, too, were gallant post-captains, generals, distinguished engineers, and men of science, come to feast their eyes on this nautical wonder, this gem of the ocean, this last effort of American genius, skill, and architectural ingenuity.

Washington and the whole country lauded Stockton as the man of the hour—the conceiver, designer, and builder of the world’s first screw-propelled warship. Stockton gobbled up the adulation and never once mentioned in his speeches the name of the Swedish engineer without whom the Princeton would never have existed—John Ericsson.

Ericsson (who eighteen years later was finally to become man of the hour in his own right when his ironclad Monitor arrived at Hampton Roads in the nick of time) had come to New York in 1839. The younger son of a mathematician, he grew up in a household filled with engineering talk, and went on to serve in the mechanical corps of the Swedish Navy, and later in the Army. Emigrating in 1826 to England, then the engineering center of the world, Ericsson already entertained ideas so advanced as to be beyond the ability of the age to accept. He was full of designs and inventions—an efficient screw propeller, a steam fire-engine that pumped water faster than London hydrants could supply it, a light and incredibly speedy railroad engine. He had devised steam engines that operated on forced-draft fireboxes and recondensed the used steam to conserve water and make possible high-pressure boilers. All these schemes aroused temporary interest, but, in the end, conservative and uncomprehending officials declined or ignored every one of them. Ericsson became increasingly frustrated—that is, until one day in late 1837.

Francis B. Ogden, the American consul at Liverpool and the bank roll behind a little Ericsson-designed screw-propeller tugboat which the British Navy had rejected, was a friend of Stockton’s, who was one of the wealthiest men in Ogclen’s home state of New Jersey. In 1837 Stockton went to England on personal business, and Ogden decided that Ericsson and Stockton should get together. He arranged for Stockton to see a demonstration of the tugboat and have a talk with its designer. Though in many ways opposites, the two men hit it off remarkably well. In Ericsson, Stockton was quick to see an inventive genius who could further his own ambitions for fame and power. In Stockton, Ericsson recognized a potential ally who had not only the brains and imagination to grasp a new and untried idea but also the money to see it through and the oratorical ability to promote it.

Before leaving England Stockton asked Ericsson to build him a small screw steamer, the Robert F. Stockton , which was later sailed across the Atlantic and put into service on the Delaware and Raritan Canal, in which the Stockton family held a majority of the stock. At the same time, Ericsson described his idea for a large warship with a screw propeller, an iron hull, and a steam power plant; it was unlike anything then in existence, and at Stockton’s request the Swedish engineer turned out a small model, which Stockton shipped back to New Jersey.

… and then tragedy struck

After a brief tour of duty in the Mediterranean, Stockton returned to the U.S. With Ericsson’s model and drawings in hand and nothing but an idea in mind, Stockton went to work on the Navy Department, which had traditionally resisted the horrifying idea of steam in the Navy. Steam, though, had powered ships then for thirty-five years, and finally penetrated even the Navy Department; in 1839 it got Congress to authorize three new steam warships: two conventional ocean-going side-wheelers and a third vessel of undetermined design.

To Ericsson the congressional authorization to build a steamer of so-far-undecided design, and Stockton’s haranguing of the Navy Department—lobbying that would have gotten any less rich and influential naval officer cashiered—made the United States look like a far greener pasture than Britain. At Stockton’s urging, he departed England forever and arrived in New York in November, 1839.

To keep himself eating—and living in his accustomed lavish style while he worked on plans for his 2,000-ton steam frigate—Ericsson designed and built several successful coastal steamers. And to the naval proving ground at Sandy Hook went another new development he had brought to America with him, a unique 12-inch naval cannon that probably not even Stockton then knew about.

As the presidential campaign of 1840 got underway, Stockton went politicking through New Jersey for William Henry Harrison and John Tyler against Martin van Buren. Still thinking of a ship which had so far hardly enthused the Navy, Stockton was playing a dose and cagey game, but he held a reasonably safe hand: Van Buren’s chances were slim, and Harrison was elected, carrying nineteen of the twenty-six states, New Jersey among them. When Harrison died within a month of his inauguration, John Tyler of Virginia took office. A Democrat whom Henry Clay had unilaterally read out of the Whig party, Tyler inherited a Cabinet that consisted of Clay sympathizers almost to a man, and he needed every supporter he could get. In the late summer of 1841, when all the Cabinet members but Daniel Webster resigned, he probably offered Stockton, as a solid partisan, the job of Secretary of the Navy. Whether the offer was actually made is uncertain, but Stockton reputedly declined: He was more interested in the new steamer, whose design he was now in a position to dictate and whose command was his for the asking.

Tyler’s fellow Virginian, a day opponent named Abel P. Upshur, became the new Secretary of the Navy, and within days Stockton had authority to go ahead with the ship that was to become the Princeton . Original ambitions for a 2,000-ton frigate, though, were doomed to disappointment. Ericsson, who hadn’t heard from Stockton in months, suddenly got a message from him to work up drawings as quickly as possible for a 600-ton steamer. Preliminary plans were finished by the end of September, and Stockton had himself appointed to superintend construction of the vessel at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

By that time Ericsson and Stockton were working in an atmosphere of strained toleration, barely communicating with one another. It was clear to the engineer that Stockton was out to grab as much credit as possible for himself; furthermore, though Stockton had received a project allowance from the Navy, he showed no signs of reimbursing Ericsson for his out-of-pocket expenditures. Ericsson was more interested in the recognition, of which he surely deserved the lion’s share, than in the money, but in any case, two mutually ambitious personalities were approaching a clash.

The keel of the Princeton was laid at Philadelphia early in 1842, but because of the technical novelty of virtually everything from hull to engines, work proceeded fairly slowly. By late summer of 1843, however, the ship was basically complete, and on September 5 the Princeton slid down the ways. In a launching ceremony organized with typical Stockton élan , she was christened with American whiskey. At the banquet that followed, he was the dashing host; Ericsson was there too, perhaps at his own insistence, but in the press of Philadelphia’s elite he went unnoticed.

The Princeton was actually not a large ship, for her dimensions were about equal to those of the wooden corvettes of the time: overall length, 164 feet; extreme deck length, 116 feet, 8 inches; beam, 30 1/2 feet. It was her completely iron hull that made the vessel seem so far advanced. Ericsson’s steam engine had high-pressure boilers and fireboxes that burned nearly smoke-free anthracite coal. Forced-draft blowers eliminated any need for a tall, ungainly smokestack to create a natural draft, although Ericsson had designed a new telescopic smokestack for her. Long but fairly flat, like all of Ericsson’s engines, the Princeton ’s power plant was equipped with condensers cooled by sea water. Thus it could recondense used steam and do away with the need for a continuous resupply of fresh water for the boiler. The blowers and recondensers were in fact more efficient than the builders had imagined, for although rated at 220 horsepower, the engine routinely produced upward of 260. Unlike the sidewheelers of the time, the Princeton had her engine attached directly to the propeller shaft, which in turn terminated in a propeller fourteen feet in diameter.


Considering that she was to be a warship, the most important of the Princeton ’s engineering advances was the engine’s shape and location. It was long and tubular, and so mounted that its top, near the stern, was ten feet below the water line. This made the ship extremely stable by keeping the greatest weight very low and directly above the keel; moreover, in any battle the sturdy metal hull would make the Princeton ’s power plant virtually invulnerable to shot and shell.

Externally the ship did not look like a steamer at all, and she had been equipped with three masts and a full suit of sails. To see her moving swiftly along, all sails furled, was an eerie experience in 1844, for she slid through the water as if by magic. Even at top speed no smoke was visible, thanks to her efficiently burning coal. To Stockton’s great delight, the newspapers began calling her a “phantom ship.”

By mid-October she was finished and ready for trials, and on the seventeenth Stockton took her out for her first ocean trip—a voyage to New York. Travelling most of the way under sail, but making his grand entrance into New York Harbor under steam, Stockton made the 225-mile run from Newcastle, Delaware, in just over twenty-one hours, even better time than he had expected.

Stockton had not come to New York just to try out his new toy but to stage a grandstand play, a race from Castle Garden to Sandy Hook against the famous transatlantic side-wheeler Great Western , due to sail for Europe on October 19.

With passengers lining the rails and mobs jamming Battery Park, the Great Western left her pier at two thirty in the afternoon, excess steam blowing from the safety valves as she churned into the harbor. Her captain, taking no chances, had ordered all her lower sails set as well. A quarter mile out the Princeton , which had been steaming back and forth all morning, came up behind the Great Western with bare masts and not a smudge of smoke, and the great race was on. The New York Courier and Enquirer later described the result: ”… to the astonishment and delight of all, the Princeton gained rapidly upon, overhauled, and passed the Great Western , without showing an inch of canvass, and then commenced setting sail, and, as near as we could judge, looking through a glass, literally walked away from her!”

By the time the newspapers had published every possible angle of the greatest seagoing race New York had ever seen, the Princeton was back in Philadelphia to take on armament. Her guns were perhaps the most unusual thing about her, for she mounted a battery providing firepower far out of proportion to her size.

Ever since his days in Sweden, John Ericsson had been intrigued by artillery, and by the challenge of overcoming the limitations, then severe, on casting and forging large iron guns without inevitable and often dangerous—but invisible—flaws and stresses.

In England Ericsson had tried a novel and different approach, forging a huge gun with a tube of minimum thickness and then reinforcing the barrel on the outside with bands of hammered wrought iron. With its 12-inch bore, Ericsson’s cannon was perhaps the biggest naval gun that had ever been made—thirteen feet long, it weighed 16,000 pounds—and it came with him to New York. Set up at a naval testing ground at Sandy Hook, the gun fired hundreds of 225-pound balls; a crack developed in the breech, but after further strengthening the weapon was as efficient as before.

Named the “Oregon,” Ericsson’s gun was mounted on the Princeton ’s foredeck, and Stockton decided he’d like another to match. Ericsson warned him of the technical understanding, experience, and controls that he considered essential in the tricky business of gunmaking; Stockton ignored the information. He was on increasingly antagonistic terms with the inventor, and he had no knowledge of casting or forging. Nevertheless, he plunged ahead on his own. At the Hamersley Foundry in Philadelphia he forged a 12-inch gun that was fourteen feet long, a foot thicker at the breech than the Oregon, and half again as heavy: it weighed 25,000 pounds. The barrel had no reinforcing bands. After superficial trials the new cannon, which Stockton named the “Peacemaker,” joined the Oregon on the Princeton ’s foredeck.

On January 31, 1844, Stockton steamed out of New York Harbor to seek fresh accolades in Washington. As always, he left Ericsson behind.

On February 28, the day of Stockton’s long awaited grand “experimental excursion” for the President, boats shuttled back and forth all morning carrying the Captain’s guests to the Princeton . By noon nearly three hundred men and women jammed her decks and cabins. The weather could hardly have been better, and practically everyone who had been invited showed up. President Tyler; his fiancée, Julia Gardiner; her sister; and the President’s father-in-law-to-be, former New York State Senator David Gardiner, led the list. Washington’s queen dowager, Dolley Madison, was aboard. So was most of the Cabinet, including Abel P. Upshur, recently elevated to Secretary of State; the new Secretary of the Navy, Thomas W. Gilmer; Secretary of War William Wilkins; and the rest of the President’s official family. From the Senate and House came Thomas Hart Benton, John C. Calhoun, and a score of others. The military guests included practically every general and flag officer in Washington, and every departmental chief as well. The most important foreign diplomats, as well as judges, ex-congressmen, mayors, and a host of other notables, many accompanied by their wives and older children, completed the party. They were about to undertake an excursion that none would ever forget.


All was not completely joyous and carefree; in fact, there was a vague undercurrent of uneasiness which may have dampened the general gaiety. For one thing, news was quietly circulating—Thomas Hart Benton had gotten it on his way to the Princeton —that the famous Philadelphia financier Nicholas Biddle had died the previous evening. As president of the Second Bank of the United States he had been for years a familiar figure in Washington and many aboard the Princeton had known him. For another, the size of the deck guns awed the men and frightened the women. Mrs. Thomas Gilmer, though, seems to have been the only passenger with a real fear of impending doom. It was so strong that she actually asked her husband if they couldn’t go ashore. As Secretary of the Navy he could hardly agree.

Stockton weighed anchor about noon, and the Princeton steamed serenely down the calm Potomac.

Below Fort Washington, the Captain ordered the first demonstration of his Peacemaker. She was loaded with 40 pounds of powder and a 12-inch iron ball weighing 225 pounds. (The Oregon was not fired, nor had it been on the earlier excursion.) As the first shot was fired, the crowd gathered about the gun could clearly see the ball arch into the air, hit the water two miles away, and then skip along the surface for perhaps another mile till it was lost from sight. More shots were fired to demonstrate the precision of the gun crew and the ability of the gun and mounting to swivel in any direction. At maximum elevation, with its maximum charge—fifty pounds of powder—the huge cannon would throw a ball about four miles.

After three or four shots Stockton called a halt, and the guests retired below to attack the luncheon laid out in the main cabin. The Marine Band on the quarterdeck played marches, waltzes, and polkas.

By three o’clock the first part of the “sumptuous collation” was over; the three hundred guests had put away in good order all of Stockton’s roast birds and hams, and the customary round of toasting began. Stockton led off, of course, with a toast to the President. Then Tyler took over, toasting Stockton, the Oregon, the Peacemaker. Ericsson’s name was never mentioned. As more experienced and grandiloquent speakers proposed toast after toast after toast, the party’s natural gaiety turned to unbounded exuberance. Guests with low tolerances for alcohol and sailing began to filter away to other parts of the ship. Some with greater capacities, including the President’s son-in-law, William Waller, began to sing. The singing, combined with the playing of the band overhead, overpowered the toast-making orators, but by now no one really cared anyway.

The Princeton had gone about for her return journey, and just about four o’clock was passing Mount Vernon again. An officer whispered to Stockton that one of the guests would like to see the Peacemaker fired once more before the ship reached anchorage. The Captain at first declined, until he learned that the request had come from the Secretary of the Navy. Stockton got up to go on deck; most of the party, including the President, stayed behind—too involved in William Waller’s singing or Julia Gardiner’s flirting to notice, or too far gone in wine to move.

The gun crew loaded the Peacemaker with a light charge, twenty-five pounds of powder, and Stockton took position to fire the piece himself. The audience was much smaller than it had been earlier—Secretary and Mrs. Gilmer; Secretary Upshur; Senator Benton; Senator Samuel Phelps of Vermont with a lady friend; Virgil Maxcy, the former chargé d’affaires in Belgium; David Gardiner; and a handful of others.

Stockton pulled the lanyard to trigger the gun’s lock, and the whole ship shook with the force of a great explosion; even the revellers in the main cabin felt it. A thick cloud of white smoke rolled over the vessel, and from it came a few low moans, nothing else. As the smoke cleared, a scene almost beyond comprehension greeted the eyes of the onlookers: The Peacemaker had burst apart along its left side, shattering into flying fragments several thousand pounds of iron from the mounting trunnions backward. Stockton lay on the deck, luckily only stunned, with a big piece of metal lying on his chest. Two sailors lifted it away and hauled their bloody and shaken captain erect. He surveyed the terrific carnage at his feet.

The Secretary of the Navy was dead; a piece of metal had evidently killed him instantly and then gone on to hit Secretary of State Upshur, who had been standing directly behind him. Upshur, struck in the head, died before medical aid could reach him. Mrs. Gilmer, who throughout the day had never lost her feeling of foreboding, was miraculously unhurt, but now gave way to uncontrollable hysterics. Along with Gilmer and Upshur, everyone standing to the left of the Peacemaker had been literally mowed down by the hail of shattered iron. Virgil Maxcy had lost both arms and a leg and died instantly. David Gardiner and Commodore Beverly Kennon, Chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Construction, lay unconscious, mortally wounded. The ship’s surgeons could do nothing for either of them.

Senator Benton, seated on another gun about six feet away from the Peacemaker, saw the cannon fire, felt a blast in the face, and knew nothing more until he woke up, suffering from shock and a burst ear drum, a few minutes later. President Tyler’s personal servant of many years had been standing next to Benton. He was dead, as were two sailors in the gun crew. Nine others were wounded, some critically.

As for the President, he had at the last moment decided not to go up to see the gun fired. He and the Gardiner family, except for the Senator, were still in the main cabin listening to songs and toasts when a smoke-blackened officer burst in looking for the ship’s surgeons. Julia Gardiner immediately tried to go to find her father, but was kept from going on deck by someone who told her the grim news. She fainted.

The roster of lesser wounds and narrow escapes included just about everyone near the gun. After the initial shock, Stockton, injured though he was, began getting everything under control.

Undamaged except for her bow bulwarks, which had been blown out, the Princeton steamed at full speed for Alexandria while the surgeons patched up those they could and the crew laid the dead on mattresses and shrouded them with flags. Except for the immediate families of the casualties, Stockton kept his guests in the cabin. The excursion that had begun so gaily ended with sobs, hushed commiserations, and hysterics.


The Princeton was anchored by four thirty, and the steamer I. Johnson came alongside to take off the shaken and by now stone-sober survivors. The President himself carried off Julia Gardiner, still unconscious, and then returned to the Princeton . Stockton sent for more physicians and medical supplies, and the wounded stayed on board till early evening.

The next day the dead were carried from the ship to the East Room of the White House, there to lie in state until Saturday, March 2, when a funeral, rivalling that of President Harrison three years before, was held in the Capitol.∗ With one narrow escape already to their credit, President Tyler and his son John, Jr., had another on their return from the funeral. The horses pulling their carriage suddenly panicked and ran headlong up Pennsylvania Avenue, fortunately not hitting anything, till a pedestrian stopped them.

Tyler quickly appointed two new Cabinet members; the times were too critical for major posts to remain vacant for long. John Y. Mason of Virginia, an old personal friend and one of Tyler’s few political allies, became Secretary of the Navy. Under pressure from Senator Henry A. Wise of Virginia, the President appointed John C. Calhoun as Secretary of State.

Four days after the funeral the new Navy Secretary convened a board of inquiry to investigate the Princeton disaster. Stockton, who had been remarkably steady and thoughtful in adversity, again became his old self, out to save his own skin by flaying Ericsson. Ericsson, back in New York, had already learned of the explosion, though from newspapers, not Stockton. The Captain now had the temerity to ask him to come and testify to the sterling qualities of the Peacemaker. Ericsson, who had not been invited to the Great Western race, or to the ill-fated festivities in the capital, would have none of it. He refused even to go to Washington, much less testify to the merits of a gun he had already condemned.

Stockton, nevertheless, defended the gun with his usual fluency, and with other witnesses lined up to applaud his conduct after the explosion, he came out of the inquiry unscathed. The board not only acquitted him and his subordinates as “gallant and welltrained officers” who had been in positions of maximum danger every time the Peacemaker had been fired, but assessed no specific cause and assigned no individual responsibility for the accident. It was simply chalked up to the well-known vagaries of iron cannon.

The remains of the Peacemaker went to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia for close study, and the Institute’s report proved Ericsson right: the Peacemaker was not only too light for its bore size without additional reinforcement, but it was also made of an iron somewhat lighter in specific gravity than the standard—in short, either defective metal or insufficient forging was probably partially responsible for the disaster. There was a good deal of speculation, but no one ever definitely established why the gun burst when it did, with a reduced powder charge and after previous successful firing.

The Stockton-Ericsson relationship was finished; both men harbored a bitterness which lasted to the end of their days. Throughout the rest of his career in the Navy and even afterward, Stockton never forgot what he considered Ericsson’s betrayal during the Peacemaker inquiry. Refused even passing credit, much less praise, Ericsson had given the government the free use of his patents in the Princeton , but never set foot aboard her. Largely because of Stockton’s continued efforts, he never saw a dollar in salary for his work in designing the ship, or any payment for his new and unpatented developments. He vowed never again to offer his services to the Navy Department, a promise which, fortunately, he did not keep for long. Even the later success of the Monitor , though it finally brought him the fame he had sought for decades, hardly improved his attitude toward the ever-ungrateful Navy.

Still treating the repaired Princeton as his personal yacht, Stockton carried to Galveston Congress’ resolution annexing Texas. After the Mexican War broke out, the ship served, under another skipper, in the Gulf of Mexico. At war’s end, with Stockton once more in command, she embarked on a grand tour of Europe, where government officials and huge crowds greeted her in every port with the same adulation she had received in America five years earlier.

At home, though, the Princeton never regained the sparkling and ghostly presence that had awed public and government alike. She was, in fact, considered a jinxed ship by the Navy Department, which was still wary of innovations and distrustful of the Princeton in particular.

Soon after his return from the triumphal European tour, Stockton resigned from the Navy and went home to New Jersey to run (successfully) for Congress. Once his sustaining presence had departed her decks for good, the Princeton was doomed. Without ever having appreciated or even understood, really, what a wondrous ship it had possessed, the Navy quickly decommissioned, broke up, and ignominiously scrapped the vessel that had ushered in the age of steam-driven iron navies.

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