How ‘The Peacemaker’ Tragedy Altered American History
It was a Wednesday, February 28th, 1844. The weather was unexpectedly warm, what one guest later called “almost a summer sky.” Dignitaries from all over Washington had gathered for a pleasant, peaceful cruise down the Potomac.
Most considered the trip a brief distraction from official duties, a bit of pomp to celebrate America’s growing military might.
Yet, when the ship returned a few hours later, some passengers would be dead, others would be in love, and the course of United States history would be forever changed.
Ever since she had arrived two weeks earlier, the Princeton had been the talk of the town. She was a steam-powered frigate that could cruise at 7 knots, and she carried two 12-inch guns, each capable of firing a 225-pound cannonball up to five miles.
Ericsson was a brilliant and visionary naval architect.
Stockton was an accomplished sailor and the scion of a well-connected New Jersey political family. One of his grandfathers, Judge Richard Stockton, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Both Stockton and Ericsson had determined that steam-powered ships carrying massive guns were the future of naval warfare.
And so, almost two years before, they had set out to create a prototype. Ericsson had provided the design and had overseen the ship’s construction. Stockton had secured political support — and funding — to build the Princeton.
And now, those men who provided that support and funding wanted to see what the Princeton could do.
Over 400 dignitaries from Washington society made their way aboard. Among them were senators, congressmen, foreign dignitaries, naval officers, and many others.
Some of the more prominent passengers included Secretary of State Abel Upshur, Secretary of War William Wilkins, Navy Secretary Thomas Gilmer, and even 75-year-old former First Lady Dolley Madison.
But most prominent of all was John Tyler, the sitting President of the United States.
Tyler, who had assumed the role of President following the death of William Henry Harrison in 1841, was keen to inspect the Princeton.
It was an election year, and two questions hung over Washington: Would the United States annex the Republic of Texas, and Would Tyler be elected President — in his own right — in November?
Tyler assumed the questions were linked. He hoped that by securing Texas for the country, he might also secure enough votes to retain the presidency.
Therefore, in the weeks before the cruise on the Princeton, Tyler’s Secretary of State, Abel Upshur, had negotiated a treaty for the annexation of Texas. In the Senate, arms had been twisted, and favors had been granted to encourage its ratification.
The idea of annexing Texas enjoyed popular support in the country. Yet, securing the necessary two-thirds majority in the Senate was no given. In part, because of the enmity Tyler had sown as President.
Tyler had been elected Vice-President as a member of the Whig party. However, after succeeding Harrison in 1841, Tyler charted his own course. He broke with his party on numerous issues, vetoed legislation supported by the Whigs, and advanced initiatives — like the annexation of Texas — that his party resisted.
Therefore, by 1844, Tyler was a man without a party. Yet, he judged the annexation of Texas was so popular that it might keep him in the white house.
And the Princeton was key to this Texas two-step.
Most assumed that annexation would lead to war. Surely with Mexico — who did not view Texas as an independent nation, but rather, a province in revolt. But also, and perhaps more importantly, a fight against the European powers, such as France or England, could not be ruled out.
However, with the Princeton patrolling the Gulf of Mexico, France and England would have a new factor to consider when calculating whether to intervene.
Spirits were high as the ship steamed its way down the Potomac. Stockton served as captain and was eager to show off the 12-inch cannons to his passengers.
The two cannons, named Oregon and Peacemaker, looked similar to the untrained eye. But they were, in fact, quite different.
The Oregon (originally named ‘the orator’) had been built in England using new technology, which resulted in a strengthened and reinforced barrel.
However, the Peacemaker had been built in New York, using an older method. Its cast-iron body gave it an impressive appearance, but its design hid a fatal flaw. The 50-pound powder charges were weakening it with every blast.
As the ship steamed down the Potomac, Stockton gathered his passengers on deck to see Peacemaker in action. The crew loaded ball and powder, and Stockton himself pulled the lanyard. The cannon boomed. A massive cannonball blew forth and splashed into the river. Cheers followed. Stockton ordered the cannon re-loaded. A second blast — another success.
The demonstration over, passengers went below for refreshments. The ship turned for Washington. As it made its way back towards the capital, Mount Vernon came into view. Someone suggested that the great cannon should be fired again — to honor the first President.
Historian H.W. Brands, in his book Heirs of the Founders, described what happened next.
The guests were scattered around the deck and below when Stockton himself pulled the lanyard to ignite the charge. Perhaps he had instructed the primers to pack a little extra powder into the gun, to intensify the impression made earlier. Perhaps they did so on their own. Maybe they miscalculated. But this time as the charge ignited, it burst the barrel of the gun, sending flames, searing heat and deadly shrapnel out the side. [Secretary of State] Abel Upshur and several others, [including Thomas Gilmer, Secretary of the Navy] and David Gardiner [a wealthy New York banker], were killed instantly. Tyler had been below deck and was coming up the ladder when the explosion occurred; he escaped death by a few seconds.
As the smoke cleared, Tyler rushed to comfort Gardiner’s daughter, Julia.
Tyler, 53, was acquainted with the 24-year-old Julia. Indeed, he knew her quite well — having proposed to her over a year earlier. Tyler’s first wife, Letitia, had passed away in 1842 of a stroke (the first time a First Lady died in the White House).
Ever since the death of Letitia, Tyler had pursued Julia, but she had refused his offers of marriage. In the months after her father’s death, she reconsidered. They were married in New York City on June 26th, 1844.
Tyler may have found love in the wake of the tragedy, but it spelled the end of his political career. Upshur, the chief architect of the annexation treaty, and the man who had done the most to promote its passage in the Senate, was dead.
The president turned to another man to serve as Secretary of State: John C. Calhoun.
By selecting Calhoun, an unabashed champion of the expansion of slavery, Tyler made the treaty’s ratification impossible. Northern politicians now viewed the annexation treaty as a de-facto referendum on the extension of slavery. They wanted no part of it. The treaty was not ratified.
Having long since angered the Whigs, and now having disappointed the pro-slavery Democrats, Tyler lost any hope of retaining power. He retired to his Virginia estate with Julia. Despite the couple’s 30-year age difference, they would have seven children before his death in 1862.
Amazingly, the man most responsible for the Peacemaker tragedy faced no official punishment.
Despite being culpable for the poor design, failing to test the weapon adequately, and literally being the man who pulled the lanyard before the explosion, Stockton was absolved of any wrongdoing.
Undoubtedly, national pride (and Stockton’s political connections) played a role in downplaying the tragedy. No one in Washington wanted to publicize that two cabinet secretaries had been killed aboard a new ship that was designed to intimidate foreign foes.
The court of inquiry asked few questions other than to establish that the crew had loaded the cannon ‘properly’. This done, they ruled the incident an accident and assigned no blame.
Stockton went on to command the Princeton in the Mexican-American War. Under his command, the ship was instrumental in seizing Monterey, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
John Ericsson, who had no part in the design of the Peacemaker cannon, would spend several years fighting the Navy for money that he was owed. He was still unhappy with the Naval Department in 1861, when they begged him to put his mind to use designing a new ship to defend the Eastern seaboard from Confederate attacks. Ericsson finally obliged the Navy and got to work designing the USS Monitor.
Politically, the Princeton tragedy led to James Polk’s election in 1844 on a platform of acquiring Texas and other land by treaty or by force. Under Polk’s leadership, the United States annexed Texas in 1845. In 1848, after nearly two years of war, Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ceded much of what is now California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado to the United States.
Although little known today, the Princeton tragedy played in role in this process, and thus, a role in the run-up to the U.S. Civil War that would start in 1861.