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THE FORGOTTEN TRAGEDY The 1844 explosion on the USS Princeton shook the presidency of John Tyler

THE FORGOTTEN TRAGEDY The 1844 explosion on the USS Princeton shook the presidency of John Tyler

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WHEN PRESIDENT John Tyler accepted an invitation to the launch of the USS Princeton on the Potomac River at Alexandria on Feb. 28, 1844, he had no inkling of what was in store. The launch of a major U.S. Navy warship and the demonstration of the world's largest naval gun were great reasons to celebrate. Tyler could never have anticipated that the day would end in both tragedy and romance.

The first vice president ever to become president--when President William Henry Harrison died in office--Tyler was dubbed the "Accidental President" and opinion was divided on how much power he should assume. When he used the presidential veto to block the creation of a U.S. Central Bank his entire Cabinet resigned (except Secretary of State Daniel Webster, who stayed on for a year to complete the treaty with Britain settling the Maine-Canada border). Tyler immediately assembled a new Cabinet.

Although it went through several more reshuffles, by February 1844 he had a full Cabinet: Secretary of State Abel Parker Upshur, Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer and Secretary of War William Wilkins. They all shared Tyler's views on the big question of the day--slavery.

Slavery informed every issue, including the relationship between the United States and Great Britain. Although the Maine-Canada border had been settled, feelings between the two countries still ran high. Britain had abolished slavery and outlawed the slave trade and had taken to harassing American trading ships on the high seas. In the Northwest, Britain and the United States ruled Oregon in an uneasy alliance, and in the South they vied with each other for influence in the recently independent Republic of Texas.

Fearing that a British takeover of Texas would surround the United States with free territory to which slaves might escape, the Tyler administration hoped to bring Texas into the Union as a slave-owning state, thus strengthening its hand against the Northern abolitionists. They hoped to settle the Oregon and Texas questions without precipitating a war with Mexico or Great Britain. A warship that brought the U.S. Navy closer to the might of the British navy would provide the muscle behind U.S. diplomacy.

Innovative warship born

Building a major U.S. warship had been a preoccupation of Capt. Richard Field Stockton for many years. A native of New Jersey, Stockton had seen action in the War of 1812 and had been sent by President James Monroe to West Africa to secure land for the resettlement of freed slaves. Since 1838, he had been pressing the Navy for appropriations to build a major warship.

Although Stockton refused the position of Secretary of the Navy when Tyler offered it to him, he lost no time in approaching Secretary of the Navy Upshur for funds once he took up the post. In Upshur, Stockton found a sympathetic ear--the budget was approved and Upshur took an active interest in the building of the ship.

In 1841, work began on the ship at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. To design and supervise the building Stockton enlisted John Ericsson, a brilliant Swedish engineer. In his design, Ericsson incorporated the screw propeller, the first time it had been used in a warship. This innovation replaced the traditional side paddle wheels and placed all the equipment below the waterline, safely out of the enemy's line of fire.

By late 1843, the ship was ready and Stockton named it after his hometown, Princeton. In October, it raced against Bunel's Great Western and 'walked away from her.' The Princeton boasted two huge naval guns--the Oregon and the Peacemaker. At 10 tons, with a 15-inch bore, the Peacemaker was the largest naval gun in the world and the largest gun ever made from wrought iron. With its combination of stealth and firepower, the Princeton was regarded as nearly invulnerable to attack.

In early 1844, Stockton wrote proudly to Secretary of the Navy David Henshaw, "By the application of the various arts to the purposes of war on board the Princeton, it is believed that the art of gunnery for sea-service has, for the first time, been reduced to something like mathematical certainty."

On a freezing Saturday in February 1844, the Princeton sailed from Philadelphia headed for the capital. It arrived in the Potomac River late Monday evening, progressing upriver through heavy ice. When it finally dropped anchor off Alexandria, The Daily National Intellegencer reported, "the United States Steamer Princeton now lying in the Potomac near the Arsenal, has become an object of great curiosity to the public and our citizens generally."

To launch the ship, Stockton planned two weeks of festivities for the nation's leaders and the capital's citizens. John Quincy Adams, who toured the ship on Feb. 20, was not impressed. He thought the Princeton had been "ordered round here to be exhibited to the President and the heads of the Executive Departments, and to the members of both Houses of Congress to fire their souls with a patriotic ardor for a naval war."

The festivities were to culminate with a big celebration on Feb. 28--a trip down the Potomac as far as Mount Vernon, with President Tyler, his Cabinet and many members of Congress in attendance.

While the capital's citizens marveled at the Princeton, John Tyler and Abel Parker Upshur were preoccupied with the annexation of Texas. Texas' President Sam Houston had put out feelers to Washington on the possibility of annexation. When the Tyler administration agreed, Houston sent a special envoy to Washington to work out the terms. But Secretary of State Upshur and Texas Charge d'Affaires Isaac Van Zandt started to finalize the terms before he arrived.

By Feb. 27, they had completed a draft of the bill. On the eve of the launch, while everyone partied at the president's levee, Upshur stayed late in his office copying out a draft of the bill and drawing up a list of congressmen and senators who had promised to support it.

Fine day for a launch

The morning of Feb. 28 was sunny and warm and the ice that had impeded the Princeton on its arrival in the Potomac was thawing. Large ice floes detached themselves and floated slowly downriver. At 10 a.m., several hundred guests began to assemble at Greenleaf's Point, where ferries were waiting to take them across to the Princeton anchored off Alexandria.

President Tyler was there, along with Secretary of State Upshur, Secretary of the Navy Gilmer, Secretary of War Wilkins and Postmaster General Wickliffe. Senators and congressmen from both sides of the aisle, including Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, whose vote for the Texas Annexation Bill was crucial.

The diplomatic corps was represented by Isaac Van Zandt; Juan Almonte, the Mexican ambassador; and Virgil Maxcy, who had just returned from a diplomatic posting in The Hague. Many were accompanied by their wives and daughters.

Among the guests who arrived that morning was a young woman in whom President Tyler had more than a passing interest--Julia Gardener, accompanied by her father, former New York state Sen. David Gardiner, and her sister, Margaret. The Gardiners, who hailed from Gardiner's Island off Long Island, had spent the past two seasons in Washington, where Julia and Margaret had become stars of the social scene.

During the first season, the 21-year-old Julia was introduced to the 51-year-old president. They had met again the following year just five months after Tyler's wife had died. The widowed president was smitten. He proposed a few months later, but Julia's mother refused to grant permission, citing the age difference. But Tyler had not abandoned his hopes for Julia and was no doubt delighted that she was attending the launch.

Also among the guests was Dolley Madison, a fixture at every Washington event and a last living link to the world of the Founding Fathers. A large woman given to wearing brightly colored clothes and feathered turbans, she cut a striking figure on the dock that morning.

Capt. Stockton greeted the guests when they boarded the Princeton, which was decked out in the flags of all the nations represented in Washington.

Helping him man the ship were Capt. Beverley Kennon, chief of the Bureau of Construction of the U.S. Navy, and Lt. McLaughlin. John Ericsson was not present and, judging from correspondence, it seems Stockton was eager to downplay the engineer's contributions to the designing and building of the ship and the guns.

At noon, the Princeton weighed anchor and started toward Mount Vernon. Capt. Stockton was everywhere at once, pointing out the wonders of the ship, especially the impressive guns. To demonstrate its effectiveness, the Peacemaker was fired again and again, aiming at the drifting ice floes, usually about three miles away. Each one disappeared with a dramatic splash.

On reaching Mount Vernon, the firing ceased and the Princeton swung in a half-circle to begin its voyage back to Alexandria. The guests went below deck to partake of a sumptuous feast, and a series of toasts followed. But not everyone was content with the demonstration of the guns, and some wanted to see more. At first, Stockton refused, but when the secretary of the Navy urged him, he agreed, taking it as an order rather than a request.

While most of the women stayed below deck, the men went above for one last demonstration. President Tyler's valet, Henry, requested permission to watch. Tyler granted his request and made for the gangway himself. Above-deck preparations for firing were under way, and people took their places to get a better view.

Secretary of War Wilkins, feigning nervousness, said, "Though secretary of war, I do not like this firing, and believe I shall run," and walked to the other end of ship.

President Tyler had reached the foot of the gangway when someone pressed a glass into his hand for one more toast. He paused to raise his glass. At that moment, a huge explosion was heard from above, followed by complete silence.

It was not clear at first to the people below deck what had happened. But when the silence was broken by shouts and wails from above there was no mistaking that a major catastrophe had occurred.

Tyler rushed up, to be greeted by a scene of total chaos. The breach of the Peacemaker had exploded on firing, wreaking death and destruction. Twenty feet of the ship's bulwark had been ripped away and bodies were strewn everywhere, with bits of flesh scattered about. The acrid smell of gunpowder mixed with the smell of burning flesh hung heavily on the air.

It was some time before the full casualty toll was realized. The situation was indeed disastrous. Secretary of State Upshur and Secretary of the Navy Gilmer were dead, as were Beverley Kennon, Virgil Maxcy and David Gardiner. Two sailors and Tyler's valet, Henry, also had been killed. Others were injured, among them Sen. Benton, who was knocked unconscious, and Capt. Stockton. The only woman injured was one of the daughters of Postmaster General Wickliffe.

Below deck, panic and chaos reigned as the news of the appalling casualties reached the wives and daughters. Julia Gardiner fainted on hearing of her father's death. The redoubtable Dolley Madison did her best to comfort the dying and the bereaved.

Lt. McLaughlin took over command of the ship and continued toward Alexandria. When they arrived, President Tyler himself carried Julia down the gangplank. Years later, she recalled: "I fainted and did not revive until someone was carrying me off the boat and I struggled so that I almost knocked us both off the gangplank. I did not know at the time, but I learned later it was the President whose life I almost consigned to the water."

Julia and Margaret Gardiner spent the next few nights recuperating at the President's Mansion. The wounded sailors were taken to the Navy hospital.

Following the traumatic events of the day, Dolley Madison returned to her home late in the evening, where anxious friends were gathered awaiting news of the catastrophe. Her niece, Mary Cutts, recalled years later: "She came in quietly, with her usual grace, spoke scarcely a word--smiled benignly--but those who knew her perceived her faltering voice and inability to stand without support. Of the horrible scene she dared not trust herself to speak, nor did she ever hear it referred to without a shudder."

The bodies of Upshur, Gilmer, Gardiner, Kennon and Maxcy were kept on board that night, and the next morning, Thursday, Feb. 29, they were taken to Washington by steamship. At the dock, the bodies were loaded in hearses and taken in solemn procession to the President's Mansion, where they lay in the East Room draped in flags. Later that evening, the body of Virgil Maxcy was taken to his son-in-law's house and then to the family estate in Maryland for burial. The newspapers of the day make no mention of what burial arrangements were made for Tyler's valet, Henry, or the two dead sailors.

The aftermath of the disaster

Friday was an official day of mourning in Washington, with both houses of Congress adjourned. Thousands filed past the coffins in the East Room. Saturday, the day of the funeral, was a bleak, misty day. Crowds poured in from nearby cities and the countryside. Services for Upshur, Gilmer, Kennon and Gardiner were conducted at St. John's Episcopal Church by the Rev. William Hawley and the Rev. Clement Butler.

Afterward, the bodies were taken through the crowded streets for burial at the Congressional Cemetery. Having missed death by a hairbreadth, John Tyler had another narrow escape returning from the funeral when his carriage horses bolted and almost killed him.

Once again Tyler had to restructure his Cabinet. To ensure the smooth passage of the Annexation Bill, he appointed John C. Calhoun of South Carolina as secretary of state. But although the Texas annexation treaty passed the House of Representatives, it did not win Senate approval. When annexation finally came about in 1845, James Polk had replaced Tyler as president and annexation was followed by a war with Mexico.

Although Capt. Stockton had made every effort to obscure John Ericsson's contribution to the Princeton's design when it was a success, he was now quite willing to share the blame for the disaster, and summoned Ericsson to Washington. Ericsson's reply gives some indication of the bad blood that now existed between them: "How differently should I have regarded an invitation from Captain Stockton a week ago! I might then have had it in my power to render good service and valuable counsel. Now I can be of no use. I must be permitted to exercise my own judgement in this matter, and I have to state most emphatically that since Captain Stockton is in possession of an accurate working plan of his exploded gun my presence at Washington can be of no use, should an investigation of the causes of the sad accident be deemed necessary."

Stockton never forgave Ericsson, and prevented the government from compensating him for his patents and his supervision of the shipbuilding. Although Ericsson went on to design the legendary Civil War ironclad ship the Monitor, his bills for work on the Princeton were still unpaid at the time of his death 45 years later. Stockton saw action in California during the Mexican War and became that state's first governor before going on to represent New Jersey in the Senate.

A romance blossoms

The one happy outcome of that disastrous day was the romance that blossomed between John Tyler and Julia Gardiner. Tyler proved such solicitous support that Julia recalled years later: "After I lost my father, I felt differently towards the President. He seemed to fill the place and to be more agreeable in every way than any younger man ever was or could be." Within weeks, Tyler wrote to Julia's mother requesting permission to marry her daughter. This time, Mrs. Gardiner agreed.

On the June 25, 1844, President Tyler, accompanied by his son John and two soldiers, left Washington on horseback at 6 in the morning and arrived at New York late that same evening. The next day he and Julia Gardiner were married at the Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue and 10th Street by the Rt. Rev. Bishop Onderdonk.

Because no president had ever married in office, great effort was made to maintain secrecy. But the next day, The New York Herald carried an account of the nuptials. The Tylers returned to Washington and Julia took up her duties as first lady.

Although she was sometimes criticized for her extravagant ways, the public warmed to her, except for John Quincy Adams, who remarked: "Captain Tyler and his bride are the laughingstock of the city. It seems as if he was racing for a prize banner to the nuptials of the mock-heroic--the sublime to the ridiculous."

The Tylers' stay in the President's Mansion was to last just eight months, as John Tyler failed to win his party's nomination the next year. Julia made her mark by starting a tradition that lasts to this day--the playing of "Hail to the Chief" whenever the president appears at a state function.

When his presidency ended, the Tylers returned to Sherwood Forest, their Virginia plantation, where they lived until John's death in 1862. They had seven children together, bringing to fifteen the number of children Tyler fathered--a record for a U.S. president.

John Tyler returned briefly to public life in 1861 when he served as chairman of a peace convention that was called to avert a civil war. After Virginia seceded from the Union, he was elected to represent Virginia at the provisional Confederate Congress--but died in Richmond before taking his seat. Julia moved to New York and lived for several with her mother in Staten Island in reduced circumstances until she was granted a pension by the government.

Like an omen of the 1944 disaster that killed 230 sailors on board a ship of the same name, the USS Princeton sailed on into history. It was actively engaged in the Gulf of Mexico during the Mexican War. On returning from the Gulf in 1847, the Princeton was fitted with new boilers and sent to the Mediterranean. Two years later, it returned to the United States and was immediately condemned by a naval survey in a move that Richard Stockton saw as a personal vendetta. The Princeton was then broken up for scrap at the Boston Navy Yard.

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