A Brief History
On February 28, 1844, a steam powered, sail and propeller (screw) driven US Navy corvette, the USS Princeton, one of the newest and most modern ships in America’s fleet, was sailing on the Potomac River with a large retinue of US Government officials aboard including the President of the United States when she experienced one of those terrible maritime experiences we at History and Headlines call a “Naval Oops Moment.” Yes, yet another in a long line of ignominious incidents involving incredibly inane ideas and infamy that we have touched upon on several previous articles. (As noted in the past, we are in love with alliteration…)
The Princeton, named for the city in New Jersey where the Americans won a major victory during the American Revolutionary War, was designed by Swedish inventor extraordinaire, John Ericsson, the same man that designed the USS Monitor during the US Civil War as well as early railroad locomotives. Ericsson was a proponent of screw type propellers for steam ships instead of paddle wheels and was an advocate of breech loaded cannons. In fact, Princeton was the first ever screw propelled ship in the US Navy. With a length of 164 feet and a beam of 30.5 feet, Princeton displaced 969 tons and was crewed by 166 officers and men. She was capable of 8 knots of speed and for a modest sized ship was heavily armed with 12 X 42 pound carronades (short, fat cannon lobbing large cannon balls for short distances, real ship destroyers) and 2 long range 12 inch bore unrifled cannons. The ship also was different from most of her contemporaries by having an iron hull.
The long 12 inch cannon were the centerpiece of the ship, the original gun designed for the ship by Ericsson himself, a muzzle loading masterpiece of wrought iron that could fire a 225 pound shell an incredible (for the day) 5 miles using a 50 pound charge of propellant powder. The construction of the gun, later named “Oregon,” included iron bands pre-heated and shrink fit over the cylinder to provide extra strength without adding extra weight. The second gun was NOT designed by Ericsson, but by Captain Stockton, the skipper of the Princeton. Apparently Stockton wanted a second long range gun and was looking for an excuse to exercise his own ideas about cannon construction. The Stockton designed gun was of an older type design, both in its muzzle loading operation and in its metallurgy, using old fashioned casting techniques that did not have the strength of the slimmer but stronger Ericsson cannon. Instead, the Stockton gun, named “Peacemaker,” was merely thicker resulting in an impressive looking but terribly heavy gun that weighed an enormous 27,000+ pounds.
Commissioned in 1843, the Princeton was the pride of the fleet, and was the right ship to show off to President John Tyler and some of his cabinet members, including Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur and Secretary of the Navy Thomas Walker Gilmer among others. Stockton, eager to show off his own cannon design, conducted a demonstration firing of the Peacemaker, successfully firing 3 shots without incident. While the President and some of the dignitaries went below decks for rest and refreshment, Captain Stockton prepared another salvo from his pet cannon as a salute to the memory of George Washington as the ship passed Washington’s Mt. Vernon estate.
This fourth firing of Peacemaker was one too many, as when the lanyard was pulled (by Stockton himself) the cannon blew up, killing 6 people and injuring another 20! Luckily, only the left side of the breech area had burst, or more people could have been killed. Among the dead were the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of State, along with Captain Beverley Kennon (do not be misled by his name, this was a man) who was the Chief of the Bureau of Construction, Equipment and Repairs. Also killed were 2 lawyers that were also politicians and sadly, an African American slave named Armistead who was the President’s valet. The President was safely below decks when the tragedy occurred, leaving him unharmed.
In the wake of the “oops” incident President Tyler magnanimously declined to allow any persons to be blamed for the catastrophe, including Captain Stockton. Somehow, the entire incident became a referendum on John Ericsson, who had nothing to do with the accident! Plans for more Princeton class ships were immediately cancelled, and incredibly President Tyler convinced Congress to authorize a second “Peacemaker” cannon be built. This second “Peacemaker” was duly built, and fired once and once only, never mounted on a ship. An investigation found the construction of Peacemaker, using welded bands of iron around the breech instead of the “shrink” fit technique employed on the Oregon gun and other manufacturing failures were responsible for the failure of the Peacemaker. Ericsson was stiffed by Captain Stockton, who had contracted with Ericsson for the design of the Princeton and Ericsson had to sue for his money. Although Ericsson won in court, Stockton never paid up. Stockton later served as the Military Governor of California and then as a US Senator representing New Jersey. Ericsson was embittered by the Princeton experience, having suffered innuendo about somehow being responsible for the failure of the Stockton cannon and being stiffed over his payments. Ericsson, a brilliant inventor, did go on to fame and a place in history for his invention of the USS Monitor, a highly successful ironclad armored coastal warship that was to achieve fame at Hampton Roads in 1862 when she fought the CSS Virginia in the first ever battle of ironclad armored warships. Monitor was unique for the time by employing a single revolving turret that mounted 2 breech loading cannon, the first ship ever so designed.
The Princeton never lived down its unfortunate incident, and in the superstitious manner of sailing men gained a reputation as an unlucky ship. She served in US waters until being deployed to the Mediterranean Sea in 1847 until 1849, when she returned home for refitting. Found to need an excessive and costly series of repairs, Princeton was instead decommissioned and broken up.
An interesting side story to the “oops” moment tragedy was that the daughter of one of the lawyers that had been killed, a Julia Gardiner, had been below decks when the accident occurred. She later became First Lady of the United States when she married President Tyler later the same year (1844). Tyler had fathered 8 children with his first wife (who had died of a stroke in 1842), and fathered an additional 7 children with Julia, making him the champion of US Presidents for fathering (officially) 15 children.
The legacy of the USS Princeton includes another ship bearing that name, this one also designed by John Ericsson and commissioned in 1852, having been launched in 1851. The second Princeton was much larger, displacing 1370 tons. She served until being sold as surplus in 1866. This second Princeton had an undistinguished career, mostly as a “receiving ship,” one docked and not going to sea. Another 4 US Navy ships have carried the name Princeton. The ship currently bearing that name, USS Princeton (CG-59), is a guided missile cruiser of the Ticonderoga-class and has been commissioned since 1989.
As always, we pay tribute to the brave men and women of the US Navy and all sailors that go down to the sea in ships!
Question for students (and subscribers): What naval “oops moment” do you find most fascinating? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Bayard, Samuel. Commodore Robert F. Stockton, an American Naval Hero. Hereditea, 2007.
Paul, David. John Ericsson and the Engines of Exile. Chandler Lake Press, 2016.
The featured image in this article, a contemporary Currier & Ives lithograph depicting the explosion, is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b51075. This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1925, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation.