USS Princeton (1843) | 1844 peacemaker accident

1844 Peacemaker accident

Contemporary Currier & Ives lithograph depicting the explosion

President Tyler hosted a public reception for Stockton in the East Room of the White House on February 27, 1844.[9] On February 28, USS Princeton departed Alexandria, Virginia, on a pleasure and demonstration cruise down the Potomac with President John Tyler, members of his Cabinet, former First Lady Dolley Madison, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, and approximately four hundred guests on board. Captain Stockton decided to fire the larger of her two long guns, Peacemaker, to impress his guests. Peacemaker was fired three times on the trip downriver and was loaded to fire a salute to George Washington as the ship passed Mount Vernon on the return trip. The guests aboard viewed the first set of firings and then retired below decks for lunch and refreshments.[10]

Secretary Gilmer urged those aboard to view a final shot with the Peacemaker. When Captain Stockton pulled the firing lanyard, the gun burst. Its left side had failed, spraying hot metal across the deck[8] and shrapnel into the crowd. Instantly killed were Navy Secretary Gilmer; Secretary of State Upshur; Captain Beverley Kennon,[b] who was Chief of the Bureau of Construction, Equipment and Repairs; Virgil Maxcy, a Maryland attorney with decades of experience as a state and federal officeholder;[c] David Gardiner,[d] a New York lawyer and politician; and the President's valet, a black slave named Armistead.[e] Another sixteen to twenty people were injured, including several members of the ship's crew, Senator Benton, and Captain Stockton.[14][15] The President was below decks and not injured.[16]


Rather than ascribe responsibility for the explosion to individuals, Tyler wrote to Congress the next day that the disaster "must be set down as one of the casualties which, to a greater or lesser degree, attend upon every service, and which are invariably incident to the temporal affairs of mankind".[17] He said it should not be allowed to impact their positive assessment of Stockton and his improvements in ship construction.[18]

Capt. Robert Stockton
President John Tyler
Julia Tyler.gif
First Lady Julia Tyler

Plans to construct more ships modeled on the Princeton were promptly scrapped, but Tyler won Congressional approval for the construction of a single gun on the dimensions of the Peacemaker, which was fired once and never mounted.[18] A Court of Inquiry investigated the cause of the explosion and found that all those involved had taken appropriate precautions.[18][f] At Stockton's request, the Committee on Science and Arts of the Franklin Institute conducted its own inquiry, which criticized many details of the manufacturing process, as well as the use of welded band for reinforcement rather than the shrinking technique used on the Oregon.[18] Ericsson, whom Stockton had originally paid $1,150 for designing and outfitting the Princeton, sought another $15,000 for his additional efforts and expertise. He sued Stockton for payment and won in court, but the funds were never appropriated.[18] Stockton went on to serve as Military Governor of California and a United States Senator from New Jersey.[19] Ericsson had a distinguished career in naval design and is best known for his work on the USS Monitor, the U.S. Navy's first ironclad warship.

To succeed Gilmer as Secretary of the Navy, Tyler appointed John Y. Mason, another Virginian.[8] As his new Secretary of State, Tyler named John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, like his predecessor an advocate of states rights, nullification of federal law by states, the annexation of Texas, and its admission into the union as a slave state.[20][g] But where Gilmer and Upshur had supported annexation as a national cause, Calhoun recast the political discussion. To Tyler's frustration, he promoted the annexation of Texas while "directly, unambiguously, and full-throatedly celebrating slavery and celebrating sectional advantage", that is, the importance of Texas to the longterm survival of slavery in the United States.[20][21] Upshur was about to win Senate approval of a treaty annexing Texas when he died. Under Calhoun annexation was delayed and became a principal issue in the presidential election of 1844.[22]

Julia Gardiner, who was below deck on the Princeton when her father David died in the Peacemaker explosion, became First Lady of the United States four months later. She had declined President Tyler's marriage proposal a year earlier, and sometime in 1843 they agreed they would marry but set no date. The President had lost his first wife in September 1842, and at the time of the explosion he was almost 54. Julia was not yet 24. She later explained that her father's death changed her feelings for the President: "After I lost my father I felt differently toward the President. He seemed to fill the place and to be more agreeable in every way than any younger man ever was or could be."[23] Because he had been widowed less than two years and her father had died so recently, they married in the presence of just a few family members in New York City on June 26, 1844. A public announcement followed the ceremony.[24] They had seven children before Tyler died in 1862, and his wife never remarried. In 1888, Julia Gardiner told journalist Nelly Bly that at the moment of the Peacemaker explosion "I fainted and did not revive until someone was carrying me off the boat, and I struggled so that I almost knocked us both off the gangplank". She said she later learned that President Tyler was her rescuer.[25][h] Some historians question her account.[26]

The Peacemaker disaster prompted a reexamination of the process used to manufacture cannons. This led to the development of new techniques that produced cannons that were stronger and more structurally sound, such as the system pioneered by Thomas Rodman.[citation needed]

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