USS Princeton (1843)

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For other ships with the same name, see USS Princeton.
USS Princeton
USS Princeton, Lithograph by N. Currier, New York, 1844.
Lithograph of Princeton, by Nathaniel Currier, 1844.
United States of America
Name: USS Princeton
Namesake: Princeton, a borough in New Jersey
Ordered: 18 November 1841
Laid down: 20 October 1842
Launched: 5 September 1843
Commissioned: 9 September 1843
Fate: Broken up, October 1849
General characteristics
Displacement: 954 long tons (969 t)
Length: 164 ft (50 m)
Beam: 30 ft 6 in (9.30 m)
Draft: 17 ft (5.2 m)
Propulsion: Sail and steam
Speed: kn (8.1 mph; 13 km/h)
Complement: 166 officers and enlisted
Armament: 2 × 12 in (300 mm) smoothbore guns, 12 × 42 pdr (19 kg) carronades

The first USS Princeton was the first screw steam warship in the United States Navy. Commanded by Captain Robert F. Stockton, Princeton was launched on 5 September 1843.

The Princeton's reputation in the Navy never recovered from a devastating incident early in her service. On February 28, 1844, during a Potomac River pleasure cruise and demonstration of her two heavy guns for dignitaries, one of the guns exploded and killed six people, including Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur, Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer, and other high-ranking federal officials. President John Tyler barely escaped death in the incident.

Ship history[edit]

Princeton was laid down on 20 October 1842 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard as a 700 long tons (710 t) corvette. The designer of the ship and main supervisor of construction was the Swedish inventor John Ericsson, who later designed USS Monitor. The construction was partly supervised by Captain Stockton who had secured the political support for the construction of the ship. The ship was named after Princeton, New Jersey, site of an American victory in the Revolution and hometown of the prominent Stockton family. The ship was launched on September 5, 1843 and ordered commissioned on September 9, 1843, with Captain Stockton in command.

Her two vibrating lever engines were built by Merrick & Towne, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and designed by John Ericsson. They burned hard coal and drove a six-bladed screw 14 ft (4.3 m) in diameter. The engine was small enough to be below the waterline. Ericsson also designed the ship's collapsible funnel, an improved range-finder, and improved recoil systems for the main guns.

Princeton made a trial trip in the Delaware River on October 12. She departed Philadelphia on October 17 for a sea trial, proceeded to New York, where she engaged in a speed contest with the British steamer SS Great Western, besting her handily, and thence returned to Philadelphia on October 20 to finish outfitting. On November 22, Capt. Stockton reported "Princeton will be ready for sea in a week." On November 28, he dressed ship and received visitors on board for inspection. On November 30, she towed Raritan down the Delaware and later returned to the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Princeton sailed on January 1, 1844 for New York, where she received her two big guns, named Peacemaker and Oregon.

The guns[edit]

US Steam Ship 'Princeton' and "US Ship 'Raritan'

The "Oregon," originally named "The Orator," was a 12 in (300 mm) smooth bore muzzle loader (ML) made out of wrought iron and was capable of firing a 225 lb (102 kg) shot 5 mi (8.0 km) using a 50 lb (23 kg) charge. It was designed by Ericsson and manufactured in England at the Mersey Iron Works and shipped to the U.S. in 1841. The design was revolutionary in that it used the "built-up construction" of placing red-hot iron hoops around the breech-end of the weapon, which pre-tensioned the gun and greatly increased the charge the breech could withstand.

The "Peacemaker" was another 12 in (300 mm) muzzle loader made by Hogg and Delamater of New York City, under the designs and direction of Capt. Stockton. Attempting to copy the Oregon, but not understanding the importance of Ericsson's hoop construction, Stockton instead heavily reinforced it at the breech simply by making the metal of the gun thicker, ending up with a weight of more than 27,000 lb (12,000 kg). This produced a gun that had the typical weakness of a wrought iron gun, the breech being unable to withstand the transverse forces of the charge. This meant it was almost certain to burst at some point. Stockton only allowed for a few test charges before putting it aboard Princeton.

Princeton was sent to Washington, D.C. in late January 1844, arriving on February 13. Washingtonians displayed great interest in the ship and her guns. She made trial trips with passengers on board down the Potomac River on February 16, 18, and 20, during which the Peacemaker was fired several times.

Peacemaker accident[edit]

Contemporary lithograph depicting the explosion

On February 28, she departed Alexandria, Virginia on a pleasure and demonstration cruise down the Potomac with President John Tyler, his Cabinet, former first lady Dolley Madison, and approximately four hundred guests on board. The guests viewed the firing of the ship's guns and then retired below decks for lunch and refreshments. When they were summoned once more to view another test firing, the firing of Stockton's Peacemaker caused the gun to burst, sending shrapnel into the crowd. Instantly killed were Secretary Upshur, Secretary Gilmer, Capt. Beverly Kennon, who was Chief of the Bureau of Construction, Equipment and Repairs, Virgil Maxcy of Maryland, who had served as Chargé d'Affaires to Belgium from 1837 to 1842, Colonel David Gardiner of New York, the father of Julia Gardiner (who afterwards became the President's fiancée), the President's valet, a black slave named Armistead, and two sailors. It also injured about 20 people, including Capt. Stockton. The President was unharmed, having been below decks when the gun exploded.[1] When Julia Gardiner, who was aboard, found out her father had died in the explosion she fainted, not waking up until Tyler was carrying her off the ship.[2]

Later history[edit]

During construction and in the years following, Stockton attempted to claim complete credit for the design and construction of Princeton. Although it is true he was a strong advocate of the ship and certainly helped bring it into existence, the engineering genius was mostly Ericsson's. A Court of Inquiry investigating the cause of the explosion exonerated Capt. Stockton due to his political influence (he supported Tyler’s campaign),[3] blaming the explosion on Ericsson (despite the fact Ericsson had nothing to do with the design of the Peacemaker gun),[3] and "bad luck". As a result of his shameful treatment, Ericsson developed a long-lasting mistrust of the US Navy.[3]

USS Princeton Bell at the Princeton Battle Monument

Princeton was employed with the Home Squadron from 1845-1847. She later served in the Mediterranean from 17 August 1847 – 24 June 1849. Upon her return from Europe, she was surveyed and found to be in need of 68,000 dollars ($1.96 million in present-day terms) in repairs to return her to complete order. The price was deemed unacceptable and a second survey was ordered.[4] Condemned due to her decaying timber, she was subsequently broken up at the Boston Navy Yard that October and November.[5][6]


In 1851, her “Ericsson semi-cylinder” design engines, and some usable timbers, were incorporated in the construction of the second Princeton.[7]

The ship's bell was displayed during the 1907 Jamestown Exposition.[8] It is currently on outside display at the Princeton Battle Monument, near the Princeton's borough hall.[9]


  1. ^ Merry, Robert W. (2009). A country of vast designs : James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the conquest of the American continent (1st Simon & Schuster hardcover ed.). New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 65–66. ISBN 978-0743297431. 
  2. ^ Knutson, Lawrence L. "D.C. Disaster Concluded in a Romance". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 10 February 2016. 
  3. ^ a b c Lee M. Pearson. "The "Princeton" and the "Peacemaker": A Study in Nineteenth-Century Naval Research and Development Procedures". Johns Hopkins University Press and the Society for the History of Technology. Retrieved 2012-05-14. 
  4. ^ "The Steam-Frigate Princeton". The Republic. Washington D.C. 10 September 1849. Retrieved 11 February 2016. 
  5. ^ "Steam Frigate Princeton". Richmond Enquirer. Richmond, Virginia. 26 October 1849. Retrieved 11 February 2016. 
  6. ^ "The Princeton". Wilmington Journal. Wilmington, N.C. 23 November 1849. Retrieved 11 February 2016. 
  7. ^ "Princeton II (Screw Steamer)". DANFS. U. S. Naval History and Heritage Command. Retrieved 11 February 2016. 
  8. ^ "NH 2082-A Bell of USS Princeton (1843-1849)". NH Series. U. S. Naval History and Heritage Command. Retrieved 11 February 2016. On exhibit at the Jamestown Exposition, Hampton Roads, Virginia, 1907. 
  9. ^ "The Princeton Bell". Historical Marker database. Retrieved 11 February 2016. 


  • Robert W. Merry, A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2009)
  • Beach, Edward L. (1986). The United States Navy : 200 years (1st ed.). New York: Henry Holt and Company. pp. 196–221. ISBN 978-0030447112. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 42°22′29″N 71°02′53″W / 42.3746°N 71.0480°W / 42.3746; -71.0480