Experimental Cannon Explosion Kills Two Cabinet Secretaries, Misses President Tyler

« Previous story
Next story »
Experimental Cannon Explosion Kills Two Cabinet Secretaries, Misses President Tyler

Today in Military History: February 28, 1844

OK, so today's post is only very obliquely military. But it still counts, as far as I'm concerned. And besides, it could have brought about a constitutional crisis of sorts, but more on that later...

USS Princeton

On September 5, 1843 the USS Princeton was launched from the Philadelphia Navy Yard. The vessel was a 700 ton corvette, 164 feet in length, with a beam of 30 feet, 6 inches and a draft of 17 feet. In addition to conventional sails, it was equipped with two vibrating lever engines – also called half-trunk engines – developed by Swedish engineer John Ericsson. The engines drove a six-bladed screw 14 feet in diameter at a speed up to 7 knots (8.1 mph). The Princeton thereby became the first screw-driven steam warship in the U.S. Navy.

The construction of this vessel was pushed mainly by the Stockton family of Princeton, NJ. Robert F. Stockton was appointed captain of the Princeton at its commissioning 4 days after it was launched. [Stockton's grandfather, Judge Richard Stockton, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.] When the U.S. Congress balked at the increasing cost of the vessel, the Stockton family contributed to its further construction.

The vessel was armed with 12-42 pound carronades (powerful, short barreled guns used for short range anti-ship and anti-personnel attacks). It also carried 2-12 inch guns, both of which could fire 225 pound shells up to five miles with a 50-pound powder charge. These latter two weapons would become the center of the controversial incident. These two cannon acquired the names of "Oregon" and "Peacemaker."

"Oregon" and "Peacemaker"

Both of these guns were designed by Ericsson, and were designed with great care. The gun named "Oregon" was manufactured in England and boasted a new technology. Ericsson had red-hot iron hoops around the breech-end of the weapon. This technique reduced the amount of stress that the breech would be subjected to when the huge powder charge was fired.

Apparently wanting to save money, the Stockton family supervised the manufacture of a second 12-inch gun for the Princeton in New York City. Not fully understanding the importance of Ericsson's hoop technology, Capt. Stockton ordered the breech of this second gun to be merely thickened. As a result, the second gun – named "Peacemaker" – weighed in at 27,000 pounds. It also now had an inherent weakness, that the breech was almost certain to burst after an unknown number of firings.

The "Peacemaker" Accident

The Princeton arrived near Washington, DC in early February of 1844. It made several trial trips down the Potomac River with civilian passengers. During those trips, the "Peacemaker" was fired several times, without incident.

President John Tyler

On the morning of Wednesday, February 28, the Princeton left the harbor of Alexandria, VA on a pleasure and demonstration cruise. On board that day were President John Tyler, his fiancée Julia Gardiner, his entire cabinet, former First Lady Dolley Madison, and about 400 other guests.

It was a clear, beautiful morning, uncharacteristically warm for late winter. The water of the Potomac River sparkled in the sun. After the ship weighed anchor and her 42-pounder carronades fired a national salute of twenty-six guns (one for every state in the Union), the sailors pulled off their hats, gave three cheers, and the brightly clad Marine Band, played "The Star Spangled Banner." As men high in the rigging unfurled her sails, the Princeton moved majestically down the Potomac.

During the cruise, the "Peacemaker" was fired, without incident. One historian described the shot, which "arched into the air, hit the water two miles away and skipped along the surface for another mile until it disappeared from sight." At about 3:00 PM, most of the 200 ladies retired below deck to begin an elegant lunch of roast fowl, ham, and fine wines brought for the occasion from Philadelphia. As they finished, Secretary of State Abel Upshur stood to give the customary toast to the president. Accidentally picking up an empty bottle of champagne, he remarked lightly that the "dead bodies" must be cleared away before he could begin. "There are plenty of living bodies to replace the dead ones," Captain Stockton joked and passed the secretary of state a full bottle of bubbly. These words are surely chilling to read, considering what would soon come to pass.

Captain Robert Stockton (1795-1866)

It was decided to fire the "Peacemaker" a third and final time. [Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer had made the request, and Capt. Stockton interpreted it as an order.] Many of the guests filed back on deck. President Tyler was on his way above decks but paused to listen to his son-in-law, William Weller, sing a patriotic song about 1776.

As the crowd gathered to watch the spectacle, the huge cannon was loaded and fired. The stress on the poorly constructed breech of the "Peacemaker" was too much; the cannon exploded, sending red-hot pieces of the gun through the crowd. The ship trembled, and a dense cloud of white smoke smothered the deck, making it almost impossible to see or breathe. According to the editor of the Boston Times, an eyewitness, when the smoke cleared, dead bodies and detached arms and legs littered the deck.

Sec. of State Abel Upshur (1790-1844)

Navy Secretary Thomas Gilmer (1802-1844)

Killed in the explosion were: Secretary of State Upshur; Navy Secretary Gilmer; Navy chief of construction Beverly Kennon; Virgil Maxcy, former charge d'affaires to Belgium; President Tyler's valet, a slave named Armistead; and David Gardiner, Julia Gardiner's father. Approximately 20 people were wounded, including Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who suffered a concussion, and Capt. Stockton, who was standing near the base of the gun and had all of the hair on his head burned off. Many other spectators sustained burst eardrums, while some ladies had their dress splattered with the blood and brains of the dead. One woman who had been holding the arm of Senator Benton was blown into the ship's rigging by the explosion, but was otherwise unhurt.

Julia Gardiner Tyler (1820-1889)

When Julia Gardiner heard that her father had died in the accident, she fainted into the President's arms. Many women who had not been on deck were restrained from viewing the scene of carnage.


The next day, the Princeton docked and the Washington Navy Yard, as crowds of onlookers watched the grim unloading of six coffins. Five were mahogany, the one for Armistead was made of cherry. The coffins (save Armistead's) laid in state in the White House, the Execuitve Mansion was draped in black crepe.

At precisely 11 o'clock on Saturday, March 2, under a cold, gray sky, six hearses – each drawn by a pair of jet-black horses – left the gates of the White House. Soon after, an artillery detachment stationed near St. John's Church across the square from the White House fired the first salute, which rattled windows across the city. Every 60 seconds, the crack of rifles and the boom of cannons echoed throughout Washington, as a mile-long procession passed military units posted outside City Hall at Judiciary S

quare, the Capitol, and the Navy Yard. All along the route, stores were shuttered and draped in black. Thousands of spectators lined the streets, craning their necks for a view of the grim parade. At the gates of the Congressional Burying Ground (present-day Congressional Cemetery), the mahogany coffins were lifted from their hearses and the pallbearers led a civic procession into the graveyard.

Footnote #1: President Tyler married Julia Gardiner four months after this tragedy. They named their first child after Mrs. Tyler's father, David Gardiner Tyler. She would give the President six more children, giving him a total of 15 children by two wives.

Footnote #2: A board of inquiry absolved Capt. Stockton of any wrongdoing in the incident, probably due to the well-connected nature of his politics. Stockton would later serve with distinction during the Mexican-American War.

Footnote #3: At the time of Princeton incident, the country had no Vice President, as Tyler had become the Chief Executive at the death of William Henry Harrison in 1841. The Constitution was unclear as to whether a Vice President would become "full" President or merely an "Acting" President. Under the terms of the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate would be next. In 1844, that would have been Sen. Willie P. Mangum of North Carolina.

John Ericsson (1803-1889)

Footnote #4: John Ericsson would later make a contribution to the Union war effort in 1862. He conceived and had built the USS Monitor, a revolutionary warship that made a huge contribution to modern concepts of naval design and construction. 

Footnote #5: Because of this accident, the Princeton was almost instantly transformed into a cursed ship. It served briefly in the Home Squadron – guarding the U.S. east coast – then in the Mediterranean. When the vessel returned to American waters in 1849, it was inspected and many of its timbers were found to be rotten. The Princeton was struck from the Navy's rolls and broken down in Boston Navy Yard beginning in July 1849. Two years later, some of its sound timbers and the ship's original half-trunk engines were used to build a new USS Princeton. 

Posted in top stories | 0 comments
« Previous story
Next story »


* To comment without a Facebook account, please scroll to the bottom.

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Have a tip for us? A link that should appear here? Contact us.
News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.