In many ways the Princeton was emblematic of the age. Despite her wood-burning boilers belowdecks, she was crowned by a trio of tall masts draped with sails—a vestigial testament to the infancy of her steam propulsion and a tangible reminder of the conservatism among many naval officers who remained wary of that new technology. Yet this nod to caution was offset by the fact that the Princeton was the first warship to shed the cumbersome paddlewheels that had served her forerunners and was driven instead by a screw propeller.
She was unique in other ways as well. Her captain, Robert F. Stockton, driven by his belief in the need for technological innovation and by his own ambition, had used his own money, his persuasive personality, and his somewhat plagiaristic adoption of the engineering genius of Swedish inventor John Ericsson to make the Princeton a model of the possible, including a number of engineering, fire-control, and ordnance improvements. Among the futuristic ship’s innovations were the two largest guns in the U.S. Navy, each firing huge 12-inch cannonballs. One—dubbed “Oregon”—had been designed by Ericsson; the other—named “Peacemaker”—was Stockton’s and made use of much (but unfortunately not all) of Ericsson’s design. Much larger than Oregon, Stockton’s Peacemaker had been built using a different form of metallurgy and had been test-fired only five times (compared to Ericsson’s Oregon, which had been fired over 100 times).
Hoping to promote the building of more ships with these technological improvements, Stockton had arranged for several hundred of Washington’s powerful and influential denizens to witness firsthand the impressive capabilities of his ship by taking them on a short cruise down the Potomac. Included in the prestigious gathering were the Secretaries of the Navy (Thomas Gilmer), War (William Wilkins), and State (Abel Upshur), several prominent members of Congress (including noted Senator Thomas Hart Benton), former first lady Dolley Madison, and none other than President of the United States John Tyler. The President was also accompanied by his fiancée, Julia Gardiner, and her father.
Convinced that his design was superior to Ericsson’s, Stockton made his Peacemaker the highlight of the trip, twice firing it to the delight of the onlookers, many of whom stood within a few feet of the great weapon as it magnificently hurled cannonballs two miles downriver. A sumptuous lunch followed, accompanied by music from the embarked band.
As the Princeton headed back upriver, Secretary Gilmer asked for a third firing of the great gun, which Stockton took as an order. Forty pounds of powder and another gargantuan ball were fed into the gaping maw of the gun, as many of the guests crowded in for a closer look. The order to fire was passed, but this time the monstrous weapon tore itself apart in a devastating explosion that hurled pieces of iron across the crowded deck, hideously mangling some of the less fortunate spectators. In one terrible instant, the blast had killed Secretaries Gilmer and Upshur and several others, including President Tyler’s personal slave and the father of Tyler’s fiancée.
The Princeton later served in the Mexican War, proving her technological worth. But the other giant cannon—Oregon—never fired a shot in anger and eventually came ashore to reside at the U.S. Naval Academy, where it now serves as a curiosity near the main gate to wide-eyed visitors who likely know nothing of its connection to a grim past.