USS Princeton disaster of 1844
The USS Princeton disaster of 1844 occurred on February 28, 1844 aboard the newly built USS Princeton when one of the ship's long guns, the "Peacemaker", then the world's longest naval gun, exploded during a display of the ship. Twenty people were injured and six people died. President John Tyler survived the disaster because he was below decks.
Six people killed:
- Armistead, the slave and personal valet of President John Tyler
- David Gardiner, father of Julia Gardiner, President Tyler's fiancée
- Thomas Gilmer, Secretary of the Navy
- Beverly Kennon, the Navy's chief of construction
- Virgil Maxcy, American chargé d'affaires to Belgium
- Abel Upshur, Secretary of State
The USS Princeton was christened with a bottle of American whiskey when launched on September 5, 1843, and was considered a state-of-the-art ship designed by Swedish inventor John Ericsson, who later designed USS Monitor. Princeton included the very first screw propellers powered by an engine mounted entirely below the water-line to avoid the vulnerability of paddle wheels and higher engines to gunfire. Twelve 42-pound (19 kg) carronades were mounted within the ship's iron hull. Ericsson had designed the ship to mount one long gun, named the Oregon, built in England using modern built-up gun technology to fire 225-pound (102 kg) 12-inch (30 cm) diameter shot. Captain Robert Stockton wanted his ship to carry two long guns and had the Peacemaker built in Philadelphia. The two guns fired identical shot, but the Peacemaker was built with older forging technology creating a larger gun of more impressive appearance, but lower strength. Both the original gun, the Oregon, and the new Peacemaker were mounted onto the Princeton. Though the Oregon had undergone intensive testing and had been reinforced to prevent cracks detrimental to the integrity of the cannon, Stockton rushed the Peacemaker and mounted it without much testing. According to Kilner, the Peacemaker was "fired only five times before certifying it as accurate and fully proofed." After several test runs, the Princeton was considered ready.
The Princeton was brought to Alexandria, Virginia, for demonstration. Congress adjourned for the demonstration, and dignitaries present included President John Tyler and his cabinet, former First Lady Dolley Madison, and Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, as well as 400 other dignitaries. Refreshments were served in the salon below deck. Captain Stockton was proud of Princeton's speed and weaponry, and decided to fire the larger Peacemaker of American manufacture to impress onlookers.
Peacemaker had been 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 disaster occurred after Thomas Gilmer urged everyone to go upstairs for another demonstration of the gun; luckily for President Tyler, he was stopped for drinks by another dignitary. Captain Stockton pulled the firing lanyard himself, and the left side of Peacemaker failed, spraying hot metal across the deck. The smoke cleared to reveal six killed and twenty injured. The dead included Secretary of State Abel Upshur; Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer; David Gardiner; Captain Beverly Kennon, the Chief of the Bureau of Construction and Repair; Virgil Maxcy of Maryland; and President Tyler's slave Armistead. None of the gun crew were killed.
The incident "enabled [president] Tyler to reconstruct his Cabinet, excluding Northerners completely" in an attempt to "get Tyler the Southern ticket [for the 1844 presidential election] and to annex Texas." Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur was succeeded by John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, while Secretary of the Navy Gilmer was succeeded by John Y. Mason of Virginia. Upon hearing of the death of her father, Julia Gardiner is supposed to have fainted into President Tyler's arms. They were married four months later, on June 26, 1844. A board of inquiry exonerated Captain Stockton. Stockton was the son of Richard Stockton (1764-1828), who served in both houses of Congress, and a grandson of Richard Stockton (1730-1781), a signer of United States Declaration of Independence. Tyler had offered the Secretary of the Navy post to Stockton, which he declined. He later served as Military Governor of California and a United States Senator from New Jersey.
The Peacemaker disaster, though deadly, allowed for a reexamination of the process used to make cannons. This led to the development of new techniques that allowed for stronger cannons which were more structurally sound, such as the system pioneered by Thomas Rodman. Had President Tyler been above deck at the moment of the explosion, he likely would have been killed, and President pro tempore of the Senate Willie Person Mangum would have been elevated to the presidency.
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