The morning edition of the National Intelligencer of Washington, D. C., on the twenty-ninth of February 1844, carried the following startling headlines:
MOST AWFUL AND LAMENTABLE CATASTROPHE!
Instantaneous Death by the Bursting of One of the Large Guns on Board the U. S. Ship “Princeton” of Secretary Upshur, Secretary Gilmer, Commodore Kennon, and Virgil Maxcy, Esq.
The Princeton was of unique and interesting design and for her day a radical departure in naval construction, being the first propeller-built ship of the U. S. Navy. Her hull and rig were designed by Captain R. F. Stockton, U. S. Navy, and her engine by John Ericsson, later of Monitor fame. She was built at Philadelphia by Naval Constructor John Lenthall, at a cost of $141,819, and was 164' long, 30' 6" beam, and 17' draft. Her displacement was 672 tons. She was ship-rigged, spread 14,413 sq. ft. of canvas and carried a telescopic smokestack that could be housed out of sight below the bulwarks. Her first captain, Robert F. Stockton (later Commodore Stockton of California fame), describes her as:
a full-rigged ship of great speed and power, able to perform any service that can be expected from a ship-of-war. Constructed upon the most approved principles of naval architecture, she is believed to be at least equal to any ship of her class with her sails. She has, also, an auxiliary power of steam, and can make greater speed than any sea-going steamer, or other vessel heretofore built. Her engines lie snug in the bottom of the vessel, out of reach of the enemy shot, and do not at all interfere with the use of the sails, but at any time can be made auxiliary thereto. She shows no chimney, makes no smoke, and there is nothing in her external appearance to indicate that she is propelled by steam.
This daring combination of sail and wheel caused the captain to be enthusiastic over her tactical qualities, for he said:
She can go in and out of port at pleasure, without regard to the force or direction of the wind or tide, or thickness of the ice. She can ride safely with her anchors in the most open roadstead; and may lie to, in the severest gale of wind, with safety. She can not only save herself, but will be able to tow a squadron from the dangers of a lee-shore, using ordinarily the power of the wind and reserving her fuel for emergencies. She can remain at sea the same length of time as other sailing ships. Making no noise, smoke, or agitation of the water (and if she chooses, showing no sail), she can surprise an enemy. She can, at pleasure, take her own position and her own distance from the enemy. Her engines and water wheel, being below the surface of the water, safe from an enemy’s shot, she is in no danger of being disabled, even if her masts should be destroyed.
And as a sop to the economists, he added:
The engines, being seldom used, will probably outlast two such ships. These advantages make the Princeton, in my opinion, the cheapest, fastest, and most certain ship-of-war in the world.
The Princeton was armed with two long 225-pounder wrought- iron guns, and twelve 42-pounder carronades, all of which could be fired at once on either side of the ship. It was said that her big guns could be fired with an effect terrific and almost incredible, and with a certainty heretofore unknown.
In the light of after events, this prophecy was only too true. The extraordinary effects were proved by firing at a target made to represent a section of two sides and deck of a seventy-four-gun ship. This target was 570 yards from the gun. Of these tests, Stockton reports:
The shot passed through these immense masses of timber (57" thick), tearing it away and splintering it for several feet on each side; covering the whole surface of the ground for several feet square with fragments of wood and iron.
Not only that but, with deadly accuracy, these guns could throw “their immense shot [3' in circumference]” through the same horizontal plank in a target six times in succession a half a mile distant. Even with modern gunnery, this would be an excellent performance.
Stockton observed that the art of gunnery had for the first time been reduced to something like mathematical certainty, and that the distance from the ship to any object could be readily ascertained with an instrument on board, contrived for that purpose, by an observation which it requires but an instant to make, and by inspection without calculation. Something our present range tinders don’t always do!
One would scarcely have thought that eighty-two years ago a ship of the Navy would use director fire but we learn that on the Princeton by self-acting locks, the guns could be fired accurately at the necessary elevation—no matter what the motion of the ship may be.
It was confidently claimed that this ship would be able to do battle with any vessel, however large, and that the improvements in the art of war adopted on board would be productive of more important results than anything that had occurred since the invention of gun powder. Her captain predicted “the ocean may again become neutral grounds, and the rights of the smallest as well as the greatest nation may once more be respected.”
In the turbulent state of the times, with the administration and the public bent on the immediate annexation of Texas, the machinations of Great Britain, the Oregon boundary dispute, a Mexican war imminent and California looming in the Pacific, it is natural that an enormous interest was manifested in this invincible warship, not only by the President and his cabinet but by members of Congress as well. All officialdom eagerly awaited the coming of the Princeton to Washington. Disillusion, disappointment, and tragedy stalked nearby.
The Princeton was the pet and pride of her captain and the development of her great wrought-iron guns had occupied his constant attention for five years. Although the use of wrought- iron as a material for cannon had been attempted repeatedly from the invention of firearms, up to this time it had never been done with success except for very small calibers. The difficulty of welding large parts together perfectly had proved insurmountable. Bronze was the material most used, but overheating and distortion caused inaccuracy for fire; and because of lack of strength large charges and heavy projectiles were impossible. Cast iron was wanting in tensile strength and dangerous.
After the final tests of the big cannon in January, 1844, Captain Stockton in his reports to the Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography waxed enthusiastic as follows:
As a gun, it is quite perfect, and I do not think that any charge of powder can injure it; and as a piece of forged work, it is certainly the greatest achievement up to this time. (Gun weighed 27,334 pounds, manufactured by Hogg and Delamater of New York at a cost of $11,488.22.) The men who made it deserve their money. It is worth all the guns on board of any frigate. It is safe in its carriage on board of the ship, and I hope within ten days to be with the ship at Washington.
After proving at Sandy Hook, this gun was taken aboard the Princeton at the Navy Yard, New York, and in due course arrived at the Capital for exhibition.
For the purpose of testing the mounts and firing mechanism, several preliminary trips were made down the river with various officials on board. That President Tyler evinced an unusual interest in the ship is certain for he accompanied the captain on her second test trip to see the guns fired. A third excursion with members of Congress on board was made and the bow gun, named the “Peacemaker,” was fired for them three times, using 25-pound powder charges and 100-pound hollow shot. A thorough examination of the gun, both inside and out, after these tests, disclosed no defects.
When they did a thing in the forties they did so with considerable earnestness and conviction, so Captain Stockton, to gratify public curiosity and in keeping with his hospitable nature, sent out some hundreds of invitations to a grand fete on board the Princeton to witness the workings of the ship and see the big guns fired. The twenty-eighth of February, 1844, dawned bright with strong westerly breezes and the forenoon was taken up with extensive preparations to receive and entertain the distinguished guests.
Shortly after noon the steamboat I. Johnson came alongside with the President’s flag flying. Following, the President and his cabinet with their ladies came aboard, members of both houses of Congress, a number of foreign ministers, army and naval officers from the War and Navy Departments, and other notables of high rank and station. Altogether the guests numbered 15° ladies and 200 gentlemen. It is imagined that the handling of such a throng presented difficulties, but in those days they were extremely partial to numbers and as long as there was a goodly sprinkling of the fair sex there could be no cause for complaint. Including the officers and crew, there were aboard this ship a total of 528 souls. The yards were manned and the national salute of twenty-one guns was fired.
In President Tyler’s own eloquent words:
When the morning of the ill-fated twenty-eighth of February dawned upon the world, the theretofore tempest-tossed administration found itself comparatively tranquil and at ease, reposing on the honor, the wisdom, personal friendship, and patriotism of its counsellors and advisers. That morning was also full of promise of a day of gladness and triumph—gladness and triumph at the successful accomplishment of an experiment which had been conducted under the superintendence and direction of one of the most gallant and talented officers of the Navy. The experimental ship, the Princeton, floated majestically on the bosom of the Potomac, and her projector and commander, distinguished not more for his valor than for his unbounded hospitality, had sent out cards of invitation for a fete on board, comprising a multitude. Never did the eye gaze on a brighter or more animated scene than that which the beautiful river exhibited during the forenoon of that fatal day. There floated the ship whereon had been concentrated so many hopes and anticipated joys. Decked out in trim array, there waved from every rope and yard some emblematic flag in token of our amity with the whole world, while proudly above them all floated at the mast-head our own beautiful banner. Numberless barges shot out from every cove and point, loaded with their living freight, and flew on the wings of hope and joy towards the gallant ship. The decks were soon crowded with a host of happy visitors. There was but one person in that crowd who did not partake of the hilarity which so universally prevailed, and that exception was found in the person of the interesting and admired lady (Ann Elizabeth Gilmer) of the Secretary of the Navy. From the moment that her foot touched the deck of the ship a foreboding of evil took possession of her mind. The slightest separation from her husband caused her inexpressible agony. Vain were the efforts which were made to expel from her mind the horrid spectre of the future of that woeful day. The pall and the shroud floated before her vision and she was miserable. Like Cassandra, she prophesied of evil, and her prophecies were treated as the effects of womanly timidity and nervous excitement. Tell us, you who profess to look into the future, you who claim to have the power to read the mysteries which envelope cause and effect before they give sign of birth, what connection exists between the troubled mind thus filled with feverish apprehension, and the dread reality which afterwards occurs? With this exception, never was there assembled a more joyous crowd. A cloudless sky added to the brilliancy of the scene.
Among others, there were the Honorable Abel T. Upshur, Secretary of the State; the Honorable Thomas Walker Gilmer, Secretary of the Navy, and his wife; Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri; Senator Phelps; Captain Beverly Kennon, U. S. Navy, of Virginia, Chief of Construction, Equipment, and Repairs; Virgil Maxcy, Esq. of Maryland, Charge d’Affaires in Belgium, lately returned from a diplomatic mission at the Hague; Colonel David Gardiner of Suffolk County, Long Island (late N. Y. state senator) and his two talented daughters, Julia and Margaret, the former in June to become the wife of President Tyler; Representative H. C. Rives, of Virginia; the ex-Presidentess "Dolly” Madison; the Mexican minister, Senor Almonte and a Miss Summerville from Maryland. The senior naval officer on board was Captain C. Bolton.
Upshur from Virginia had left the secretaryship of the Navy the year before to succeed Daniel Webster as Secretary of the State. David Henshaw of Massachusetts was nominated as secretary of the Navy but for causes growing out of the state of times he was rejected by the Senate and Thomas W. Gilmer installed in the vacant secretaryship. Mr. Gilmer had formerly been speaker of the House of Representatives and a governor of the state of Virginia. At this time he had been Secretary of the Navy for only a few days, but he had entered already into the duties of his office with great zeal and high hopes for his Navy’s future.
At 1:00 o’clock the starboard anchor was weighed and the ship with her joyous company steaming gracefully over the dimpled waters. All marveled at the smooth and rapid motion of the ship under her machinery and water wheel. As a demonstration, the propeller was thrown out of gear, and at the same time the three topsails set to try the effect of the wind alone. It might have been excusable had there' been confusion in working the sails with such a multitude and so much gay chatter, but there was “entire order and discipline” a guest remarks, “at the belaying pin of every brace, sheet and halliard, a lady, a senator, or some dignitary of state would be courteously requested to move a little to give Jack a chance.” At 1:45, the wind becoming light, the wheel was coupled up to assist, until a point a short distance below Fort Washington was reached, when at 2:20 the topsails were furled and the ship rounded to for the purpose of getting a long reach of the river for firing.
The central figure of this fateful drama now takes the stage—the monstrous “Peacemaker” is unleashed for the performance. The crowd clustered around; Lieutenant William E. Hunt, U. S. Navy, the officer in charge, gave the order to load and:
A cartridge containing twenty-five pounds of powder was placed in the muzzle of the gun, a rammer with a head 9" in diameter, made for the purpose, and marked to show when the cartridge was home, was used to slide the cartridge into the after part of the chamber of the gun; Mr. King, the gunner, attending with priming wire to report it home. A wad 10" in diameter by 9" long was then placed on the cartridge, and rammed home, completely filling the chamber; one round shot weighing about 212 pounds was rolled home against the cartridge wad with a rammer, the head 12" in diameter. A wad 12" in diameter by 6" long was introduced and rammed home, the rammer marked to show when the charges were home.
When the “Peacemaker” was reported ready, Captain Stockton came forward, taking his usual position near the carriage, ordered others away to prevent any accident from recoil of carriage, and fired the gun. With wonderment the crowd thrilled at the thunderous report, the dense smoke, the deep rumble of the shell and the tremendous geyser of water thrown up. The immense range of the ponderous ball seemed to fulfill all that the valorous Stockton had foretold of their power. Examination of the gun showed everything to be well. At 3:10, being abreast of Mount Vernon, the ship wore around and stood up the river. At 3:20 another shot was fired under the same conditions as before with like effect.
The machinery had worked smoothly and the guns fired well, the exhibition planned for the day was happily over with no untoward event to mar the occasion. Secretary Gilmer, intent on the intimate knowledge of her material and structure, had visited every part of the ship, and mastered the entire fabric. I he scene is now changed to below decks where a sumptuous collation in elegant taste is served. We can picture it in our mind’s eye, the furniture of the cabins being made of white pine boards, painted white, with mahogany chairs, tables and sideboards, and an American manufactured oilcloth on the floor. The interior design of the vessel ideally accommodated itself to such a gathering, for to economize room and that the ship might be better ventilated, curtains of American manufactured linen were substituted for the usual and more cumbrous and expensive wooden bulkheads; by which arrangement, the apartments of the men and officers might, in an instant, be thrown into one and a degree of spaciousness and comfort attained, unusual in a ship of her class.
One can imagine with what punctilious care the guests were arranged. The ladies were seated first, the gentlemen standing around them, toasting with champagne the President of the United States, the ship and her gallant commander. In response, the President gave this toast “Oregon, the ‘Peacemaker,’ and Captain Stockton.” Oregon at this time was a bone of contention between Great Britain and ourselves and this bold toast throws some light on the live interest taken in the Princeton. After the ladies had partaken of the repast, they were succeeded at the tables by the gentlemen and one sees them over their Madeira and cigars listening to the merry quips of the most talented and witty among them. Upshur added to the zest of the conversation with his brilliant flashes of humor and Gilmer with lofty sentiments of patriotism. The center of all eyes was, of course, the President, tall and handsome with incomparable grace of bearing, whose silvery voice and elegant ease of conversation fascinated all. In his American notes Dickens wrote of “his mild and pleasant expression” and of his “remarkably unaffected, gentlemanly manners” and added that he thought that “in his whole carriage and demeanor he became his station singularly well.” The ship’s bell struck eight, it was 4:00 o’clock—the collation had refreshed and enlivened the guests—song prevailed.
They were still at the tables when word was brought down that one of the guns was to be fired again. On deck some gentleman had expressed the desire to see one more discharge which was assented to by the captain with the Secretary’s approval, and immediately the company arose to go on deck and observe the, firing—the long and vacant stretch in the river giving full room for the utmost range of the ball. The President and his cabinet went foremost, Senator Benton among them conversing with Secretary Gilmer. They took their places on the left of the gun—the President was called back—the captain was with this group which made a cluster near the gun, with the crowd behind and many all around. Lieutenant Hunter, in charge of the gun, who had made friends with Senator Benton, whispered to him that he could follow the shot better from behind the breech and gave Mr. Benton a seat on a carronade some six feet to the rear of the gun. Senator Phelps got on the carriage to his right, and between the two a young lady from Maryland, Miss Summerville, was seated and supported by them.
After being called back, President Tyler went below in the company of the beguiling Julia Gardiner in fashionable array, with hair en classique—a previous friendship having ripened to something more. Whether by accident or design is open to conjecture, but here they were in the comparative quiet and seclusion of the cabin and this fact alone saved the life of the President of the United States.
When the ship had reached a point a few miles above Mount Vernon the gun was loaded as at the two previous discharges. The surgeon had distributed cotton around for plugging up the ears and the crowd had been instructed to open their mouths wide to equalize the pressure on the ear drums. Nothing appears to have been neglected to insure comfort and safety.
Captain Stockton, with one foot on the bed of the gun, gave his usual order to stand clear of the gun. The breech of the gun being at its greatest elevation, the lock was cocked and set to rolling motion at an elevation of 3°, the lock being self-acting; a cord was then passed around the wheel attached to the crank of the elevating screw used for the purpose of imitating the rolling motion of the sea, and manned. By hauling upon this cord, the muzzle of the gun was depressed to the point of elevation at which the lock was set, when instantly the cap burned and the charge exploded. Senator Benton vividly relates:
I saw the hammer pulled back—heard a tap—saw a flash—felt a blast in the face, and knew that my hat was gone: and that was the last that I knew of the world, or of myself, for a time, of which I can give no account. The first that I knew of myself, or of anything afterwards, was rising up at the breech of the gun, seeing the gun itself split open—two seamen, the blood oozing from their ears and nostrils, rising and reeling near me—Commodore Stockton, hat gone, and face blackened, standing bolt upright, staring fixedly upon the shattered gun. I had heard no noise—no more than the dead. I only knew that the gun had bursted from seeing its fragments. I felt no injury, and put my arm under the head of a seaman, endeavoring to rise, and falling back. By that time friends had run up, and led me to the bow—telling me afterwards that there was a supernatural whiteness in the face and hands—all the blood in fact having been driven from the surface. I saw none of the killed: they had been removed before consciousness returned. All that were on the left had been killed, the gun bursting on that side, and throwing a large fragment, some tons weight, on the cluster from which I had been removed, crushing the front rank with its force and weight. Mr. Upshur, Secretary of State; Mr. Gilmer, Secretary of the Navy; Commodore Kennon of the Navy; Mr. Virgil Maxcy, late United States charge d’ affaires at the Hague: Mr. Gardiner of New York—were dead. Eleven seamen were injured, two mortally. Commodore Stockton was scorched by the burning powder, and stunned by the concussion; but not further injured. I had the tympanum of the left ear bursted through, the warm air from the lungs issuing from it at every breathing. Senator Phelps and the young lady on my right had fallen inwards towards the gun, but had got up without injury. We all three had fallen inwards, as into a vacuum. The President’s servant (I. More, colored), who was next me on the left, was killed. Twenty feet of the vessel’s bulwark immediately behind me was blown away. Several of the killed had members of their family on board— to be deluded for a little while, by the care of friends, with the belief that those so dear to them were only hurt. Several were prevented from being in the crushed cluster by the merest accidents—Mr. Tyler being called back—Mr. Seaton not finding his hat in time—myself taken out of it the moment before the catastrophe. Fortunately there were physicians on board to do what was right for the injured, and to prevent blood-letting, so ready to be called for by the uninformed, and so fatal when the powers of life were all on the retreat. For myself, I had gone through the experience of a sudden death, as if from lightning, which extinguishes knowledge and sensation and takes one out of the world without thought or feeling. I think I know what it is to die without knowing it—and that such a death is nothing to him that revives. The rapid and lucid working of the mind to the instant of extinction, is the marvel that still astonishes me. I heard the tap—saw the flash—felt the blast—and knew nothing of the explosion. I was cut off in the inappreciable point of time which intervened between the flash and the fire—between the burning of the powder in the touch-hole, and the burning of it in the barrel of the gun. No mind can seize that point of time—no thought can measure it; yet to me it was distinctly marked, divided life from death—the life that sees, and feels, and knows—from death—for such it was for the time, which annihilates self and the world.
Another eye witness relates;
The scene upon deck may be more easily imagined than described, nor can the imagination picture to itself the half of its horrors. Wives were widowed in an instant by the murderous blast! Daughters smitten with the heart-rending sight of their father’s lifeless corpse. The wailing of agonized females, the piteous grief of the unhurt but heart-stricken spectators, the wounded seamen borne down below! The silent tears and quivering lips of their brave and honest comrades who tried in vain to subdue or to conceal their feelings! What words can adequately depict a scene like this? The only circumstance calculated to relieve the all pervading distress is that of the multitude of the tender sex, who were on board not one was injured. The scene of devastation did not for a minute put aside perfect order and discipline. The flag had been half-masted immediately, the leadsman in the chains was calling out in his usual singsong tone and every man was at his station immovable.
Philip Hone in his diary says:
There were two hundred ladies on board; but fortunately they were all below dining and drinking toasts. The noise of mirth and joviality below mingled with the groans of the dying on deck. By this circumstance they were saved. Not one of the ladies was injured. But, oh, the anguish of wives and daughters on the sight of the mangled remains of their husbands and fathers. Nothing so dreadful has ever happened in this country except the shipwreck of the Rose-in-Bloom and the conflagration of the Richmond Theater. This murderous gun, called the “Peacemaker,” most deplorably earned its name, by making in an instant, the peace of several of the most distinguished men of the country and sending them “where the wicked cease from troubling.”
Lieutenant E. R. Thomson, first lieutenant, enters in the log that fatal day:
The gun bursted at the breech, breaking short off under the trunnion band, one-half of the breech passed over the starboard bow carrying some twenty feet of the hammock netting and twelve hammocks, and the other half (piece weighing about 2,000 pounds) fell in the starboard gangway. Ten feet abaft the forehatch the breech pin struck and damaged slightly the starboard forward carronade slide, the “Peacemaker” carriage was a complete wreck. By that part of the gun which fell inboard with several fragments great injury was committed to the spectators and crew.
To the President, the pain of this awful event amounted to agony; he dramatically relates:
The crowd below is in utter ignorance of what is passing above. A loud report is at length heard, and does not, at the moment, arrest the song and merry jest. A mysterious whisper at last reaches the crowd: anxiety, to be soon succeeded by dismay, prevails. The upper deck is reached, and there lie sealed in death and already wrapped in the folds of that flag which was never looked upon by them while in life without imparting to their patriotic hearts a quickened pulsation, the two eminent secretaries and three other distinguished citizens, one of whom, also a son of this commonwealth, Commodore Kennon, had so often courted danger on the ocean, and had won the commodore’s flag by gallant service, and at the time presided over an important bureau. While Virginia mourns over the remains of her noble sons, Maryland bends in solemn woe over her gifted Maxcy, and New York laments the death of her talented and accomplished Gardiner.
Joy is turned into mourning. The morning, so bright and cloudless, is succeeded by an evening of deep gloom and sorrow. The muffled drum, the solemn toll of the bell, the loud and dismal peal of the minute gun announce to the country the sad tidings of death and woe. There are two vacant seats at the Cabinet board the following morning—Upshur and Gilmer have fallen, like two stars struck from their spheres.
Miss Julia Gardiner says:
I was with my father when a gentleman came to me and said, “Miss Gardiner, the President wishes to take you in to the collation which is just served.” “I suppose I will have to obey orders,” I replied with a laugh, and asking my father to follow me, I started down. Just then the wind caught my veil and blew it up. Father caught it with his cane and brought it down, saying, “Take care of your streamer.” They were almost the last words I ever heard him speak. When we got down, the President seated me at the head of the table with him, and he handed me a glass of champagne. Father was standing just back of my chair, so I handed the glass over my shoulder, saying, “Here, Pa.” He did not take it, but he said, “My time will soon come.” He meant his time to be served, but the words have always seemed prophetic to me. That moment some one called down to the President to come and see the last shot fired, but he said he would not go as he was better engaged. My father started with some gentlemen. . . . Just then we heard the shot and the smoke began to come down the companionway. “Something must be wrong,” I said to the young man [sitting on the other side of her], and he started up to see. He got to the door, and he turned around and gave such a look of horror that I shall never forget it. That moment I heard some one say, “The Secretary of State is dead!” I was frightened and I tried to get upstairs. “Something has happened. Let me go to my father!” I cried, but they kept me back. Someone told me that there had been an accident, the gun had exploded, but that there was such a crowd that it would do no good for me to try to get there. I cried that my father was there and I must learn his fate. I was told then that he was wounded. That drove me frantic. I begged them to let me go and help him; that he loved me and he would want me near him. One lady, seeing my agony, said: “My dear child, you can do no good. Your father is in heaven.” I fainted and did not revive until some one was carrying me off the boat, and I struggled so, that I almost knocked us both off the gang-plank. I did not know at the time, but I learned afterwards that it was the President whose life I almost consigned to the water.
What of Captain Stockton? American naval history recalls no more pathetic picture. Just at the moment when his patriotic zeal, scientific research, and high hopes seemed to have reached a climax, he stands wounded, bewildered, and stunned amid a scene of indescribable horror wrought by the offspring of his ambitions—a living tragedy among the dead!
The Princeton came to off Alexandria at 4:20 and sent ashore for additional medical aid. The I. Johnson came alongside and received all the company except the President, Secretary of War Wilkins, and such naval officers and other friends of the deceased as were appointed to care for the remains. At 8:10 p. m., the President left the ship by the steamer Phoenix. The steamer I. Johnson returned and received on board nine wounded seamen for transfer to the naval hospital at Washington.
The news of the catastrophe was received in Washington with astonishment and high excitement, the dismay of the people was mingled with intense curiosity to know the details. All night long immense crowds visited the wharf. The electric telegraph not having been inaugurated, the intelligence was slowly disseminated throughout the land by express train, post coach, and courier.
Preparations were made for transferring the dead next morning from Alexandria to Washington. A large number of people crowded the shores as the boat approached the landing place. “Six hearses in horrid contiguity stood side by side to receive the sad freight.” Following the hearses to Washington were sixty carriages. At the request of the President, the bodies were brought to the White House with due solemnity and placed in state in the east room. With one exception, the faces of the deceased were exposed to the public view, “covered, however, with plates of glass.”
On February 29, the President addressed a message-to Congress announcing the death of Secretaries Upshur and Gilmer, expressing great grief that there should have been so suddenly stricken from his side two gentlemen upon whose advice he confidently relied in the discharge of the arduous task of administering the office of the Executive Department, and, whose services at this interesting period were of such vast importance.
The last paragraph of this message was quite remarkable, tortured as the President was with anguish over the loss of close personal friends, and sheds light upon his loyal character and faith for the future.
In some relief of the public sorrow which must necessarily accompany this most painful event, it affords me much satisfaction to say that it was produced by no carelessness or inattention on the part of the officers and crew of the Princeton, but must be set down as one of those casualties which, to a greater or less degree, attend upon every exercise, and which are invariably incident to the temporal affairs of mankind. I will also add, that it in no measure detracts, in my estimation, from the value of the improvement contemplated in the construction of the Princeton, or from the merits of her brave and distinguished commander and projector.
Congress adjourned in respect for the memory of the late distinguished secretaries and manifested its sympathy for the bereaved families by attending the funeral in a body. The badge of mourning was worn for thirty days by all members and copies of resolutions were communicated to the President of the United States and to the families of Mr. Upshur and Mr. Gilmer.
The funeral took place from the East Room of the White House at 11:00 a. m., Saturday, March 2nd. By proclamation of the mayor, all business was suspended during the funeral and, although market day, the streets were silent and in gloom, though a mass of humanity. Places of business were draped and the funeral procession presented an imposing coup d’oeil. The adjutant general of the Army was in charge of the military arrangements; after the caissons came organizations in the following order: volunteer troops; U. S. Marines; squadron of U. S. cavalry; troop of U. S. light artillery; dismounted officers of the marine corps, the Navy, and the Army in order named; civic organizations. Out of sympathy for Captain Kennon, one time commandant of the Navy Yard, Washington, a delegation of navy yard mechanics attended in a body. To the tolling of the bells of Washington, Georgetown, and Alexandria, the long funeral cortege proceeded slowly to the Congressional Cemetery. Minute guns were fired by artillery stationed near St. John’s Church, and city hall and at the navy yard. At the cemetery taps were sounded by a bugler and volleys fired.
The remains were deposited in a large public receiving vault from which they were later removed and conveyed to their homes by families of the deceased.
Shortly following this melancholy event, Captain Stockton submitted to the President a request that a judicial inquiry be instituted into the conduct of himself and officers in relation to the experiments and proofs which preceded the construction, and the proofs and explosion of the great gun. This request the President was pleased to grant observing that he entertained the most perfect confidence that no censure could, with any show of justice, be imputed to either of the parties, but yielded to Stockton’s request only as an act of justice to him.
A naval court of inquiry was ordered to convene aboard the Princeton on Thursday, March 7, constituted as follows: President,—Captain William C. Bolton, U. S. Navy; member,—Captain Isaac McKeever, U. S. Navy; member,—Captain John H. Aultck, U. S. Navy; judge advocate,—Richard S. Coxe, Esq. Captain Bolton, it will be remembered, was an eye witness to the disaster. Mr. Coxe was a civilian lawyer.
On the second day the court met at Fuller’s Hotel, Washington. Captain Stockton was unable to attend in person, not having sufficiently recovered from his wounds, but was represented by Mr. John R. Thomson of New Jersey, counsel. Stockton, in a letter to the court, written from the Gadsby’s Hotel, said “I desire most earnestly that every act of mine in relation thereto, from the first moment that I suggested the plan of the guns up to this time, may be spread upon the record of the court, without regard to any technical niceties.”
The first witness was Mr. Francis B. Ogden, an iron expert, who discussed with Captain Stockton in London in 1839 the idea of the practicability of manufacturing large guns of wrought iron. He testified that William Young, manager of the West Point Foundry, and Captain John Ericsson were also present and all agreed that if it were possible to weld together so large a mass of iron, a gun so constructed, from the superior strength of the material, would possess advantages that could be obtained in no other manner. Witness asserted that the metal of the “Peacemaker” was the largest mass that was ever brought under a forge hammer, and that examination after the explosion showed “the fibrous quality of the iron appears to be wholly destroyed; large crystals form the mass; and the specific gravity is found to be nine per cent less than that of ordinary hammered iron.”
Other witnesses called were Lieutenant William E. Hunt, U. S. Navy, who aided Captain Stockton at Sandy Hook in mounting and proving the gun and was the officer in charge at the explosion; Gunner Robert S. King, U. S. Navy; various members of the gun’s crew and finally Captain Bolton who was called to testify as to the conduct of the officers and crew. A letter from Colonel George Bomford, U. S. Army, ordnance expert, to Captain Stockton was introduced to show that Stockton solicited expert opinion concerning the proper proof of large caliber guns.
On March 11, the court adjourned with the following findings:
I. That in the year 1839, Captain Stockton being in England, his attention was attracted to the extraordinary and important improvements which had recently been introduced into the manufacture of large masses of wrought iron, as a substitute for cast iron, for objects which required a combination of strength and adhesiveness or toughness. Large shafts for steam engines had thus been fabricated, which experience has demonstrated to be superior, in those qualities which were desirable, to the same articles manufactured of cast iron.
These circumstances appear to have led Captain Stockton to consider the question how far the same material might be employed in the construction of cannon of a large caliber. He appears to have been animated by motives the most patriotic—stimulated by the laudable desire of being himself instrumental in promoting the honor of his country, and of elevating that branch of the service with which he was personally connected. To what extent his inquiries were carried, the court has not been advised; but it is in evidence that he did advise and consult with three gentlemen possessing, from their scientific acquirements and practical experience on such subjects, very superior qualifications in questions of this character, and whose opinions were entitled to high respect. Mr. William Young, Captain Ericsson, and Francis B. Ogden, Esq., are the gentlemen to whom allusion is made. After much deliberation and several consultations, with calculations furnished from the same quarter, Captain Stockton determined upon the construction of a gun of the proposed dimensions, for the purpose of testing the opinions of scientific men by the results of experience. A cannon was accordingly made at the Mersey works, of Yorkshire iron, which, being approved of, was shipped to the United States. Having been properly prepared for the purpose, this gun was carried to Sandy Hook, and subjected to what was deemed the proper test. After the first firing, preparations were made to mount the gun; in doing this, a crack was perceived opposite the chamber, which induced Captain Stockton to have the breech strengthened by putting bands around it. These bands are represented as being 354" in thickness. With this additional strength given to the defective part of the gun, the experiments were renewed, and the result was a decisive conviction upon the minds of all connected with them, that, in general, the anticipations of Captain Stockton were perfectly realized; and, secondly, that if a gun of this construction should yield to the force of the trial, it would be by a simple opening, and not, as in cast iron, a violent disruption and scattering of the fragments. The success of these experiments was such as to decide Captain Stockton forthwith to direct the construction of another gun of a similar character, to be made of American iron, which is usually regarded as superior in strength and tenacity to the English iron. This second gun (the same which exploded on board the Princeton) was constructed with a chamber similar to that of the first gun, with an additional thickness of 12" at the breech—a difference (even if the metal were only of equal goodness) far more than sufficient to compensate for the bands by which the first had been fortified.
Application was made to Colonel Bomford, of the Ordnance Department of the Army, who, it is well known, has been professionally occupied in experimenting upon guns of a large caliber, and his opinion requested as to the proper proof to which such a gun ought to be subjected. The proof suggested by Colonel Bomford as a suitable one will be found in his letter of November 25, 1840, appended to the record. The new gun constructed by order of Captain Stockton, exceeded in dimension and weight, consequently should have also surpassed in strength, that contemplated by Colonel Bomford; they being of the same caliber, and the proof to which this cannon was subjected was much more severe than what was proposed as sufficient by that experienced officer.
In view of all the circumstances thus briefly adverted to, but minutely detailed in the evidence which is spread upon the record, the court entertains a distinct and confident opinion that, in originally forming the plan for the construction of large guns, Captain Stockton proceeded on well established practical facts; that in coming to a decision upon the feasibility of the contemplated project, he did not rely upon his own theoretical opinions, but resorted to men of science and practical skill for advice; and that he was fully sustained by their judgment in every particular; that a series of experiments and trials with the two guns fully sustained the deductions of the gentlemen whose advice was sought, and justified the most assured confidence in the durability and efficiency of the gun.
In regard to the mode of loading and firing on every occasion, and emphatically that which was followed by the explosion, it is established by the fullest proof, to the entire satisfaction of the court, that every care and attention which prudence and professional capacity could dictate was observed. No shadow of censure, in this respect, can be attached to any officer or any of the crew of the Princeton.
In regard to the conduct and deportment of the captain and officers of the Princeton on the occasion of the deplorable catastrophe which occurred on the twenty-eighth of February last, the court feels itself bound to express its opinion that, in all respects, they were such as were to be expected from gallant and well trained officers sustaining their own personal character, and that of the service, marked with the most perfect order, subordination, and steadiness.
In conclusion, the court is also decidedly of opinion, that not only was every precaution taken which skill, regulated by prudence, and animated by the loftiest motives, could devise to guard against accident, but that Captain Stockton, Lieutenant Hunt, and Mr. King, the gunner, who had attended to and directed all the experiments and trials of these guns, exhibited only a due confidence in what they had witnessed, in placing themselves on every occasion, and particularly on that of the explosion, almost in contact with the gun, and in a position apparently not only more dangerous than any other, but that which might rationally have been deemed the only perilous situation on board the vessel.
The court, having thus completed its business, adjourned sine die.
March 11, 1844.
W. C. Bolton, President
Richard S. Coxe, Judge Advocate
The House of Representatives on March 23 passed a resolution calling upon the Secretary of War and Secretary of Navy to inform the house what experiments had been made by officers of their respective departments for the purpose of testing the strength and utility of cannon made of wrought iron; also what experience the European powers had on the subject.
It appeared that the only experiments for the purpose of testing wrought-iron guns made by the Army was the trial of two 6-pounder guns at Washington and Watervleit Arsenals in 1832. At Watervleit, after firing forty-two rounds, the gun remained serviceable but the enlargement of the bore was found to be .04" which was more than double that of bronze guns then made. The test of the gun at Washington left the bore in a condition unfit for service by opening the seams and welds. From these tests, it was concluded that wrought-iron guns were not fit due to the difficulty in welding the parts together perfectly and the still greater difficulty of ascertaining whether the welds were perfect or not.
The Navy had had no previous experience with wrought-iron guns and it developed that the use of wrought-iron for cannon had been attempted in Europe repeatedly but without success. Myers, in his work entitled Experiments in Fabrication and Durability of Cannon Both Iron and Bronze, edition of 1834, says “it is certain no experiment in artillery has been as often unsuccessfully repeated and abandoned as the fabrication of wrought iron cannon.”
On May 15, 1844, the house committee on Naval Affairs sustained the action of the Court of Inquiry in their findings that no blame was attributable to the officers and men on duty at the time, but they sounded a note of censure. They reported that these large guns were bought by Captain Stockton without any express order from the Navy Department and that the building of the Princeton and the procurement of her armament were under his direction. The committee found that no proper officers of the government had anything to do with the gun except to direct purchase and agree to pay the bills. They learned that the construction of the Princeton was not supervised by officers of the government charged with that branch of the public service. Everything seems to have been left with Captain Stockton “enabling him to carry out his own peculiar views.”
These guns were not ordered originally by the advice of the ordnance department of the Navy, as would seem to be the proper course, that being the branch of the service instituted by law for the regulation of naval armament, and they considered it irregular “to permit an officer unconnected with the construction or ordnance department to proceed with so little restraint in the building and arming of a ship of war.”
The committee further felt bound to express the opinion “that an unusual species of armament attended with danger should not be introduced into public service until it receives the full approbation of the ordnance officers as to its efficiency and safety.”
They trusted that:
the sad event which has given rise to this investigation and the information elicited by this inquiry from intelligent ordnance officers, will lead to cautious proceedings in a matter of such importance to the success and reputation of the Navy, and one in which the lives of those engaged in the public service are so deeply concerned. The committee ask to be discharged from the further consideration of the subject.
It appears that the President approved the report of the court of inquiry and that no action was taken against any person connected with the accident. The final chapter to the whole sad business came in a letter from the President to the Secretary of the Navy, as follows:
Washington, March 14, 1844.
Being entirely satisfied, from the report of the late court of inquiry, that no vestige of pretense remains to visit the slightest censure on the officers and crew of the Princeton, either collectively or individually, for the sad and melancholy accident which has occurred on board that ship; and regarding the bursting of the gun as one of those incidents which have often before attended the use of cannon of every size and description ; and being firmly impressed with the great importance of the Princeton as a ship of war, it has therefore seemed to me to be altogether proper to direct the construction of another gun of the size and dimensions of that lately destroyed.
I have, therefore, thought proper to order that such a gun be wrought, under the direct supervision of Captain Stockton, as soon as may be; and that the same be paid for out of any unexpended balance remaining of the appropriation for navy ordnance.
To the Secretary of the Navy.
In a development of arms a naval officer has always had to deal with high explosives and unknown quantities. It is inevitable that from time to time accidents occur. The attitude of President Tyler doubtless was an inspiration to the naval officers of that day. His was not blind faith but far-sightedness. The work goes on.