Friday, July 19, 2013

USS Princeton 1844

USS Princeton, 1844
There may be no greater warning about the grave dangers of Peace than the strange case of the USS Princeton.  This episode also demonstrates what kind of damage a government can do to its own people.

In 1844 John Tyler, a Virginian, was President of the United States (#10).  Elected Vice President as a Whig, he had succeeded to the Presidency on the death of William Henry Harrison from pneumonia.  He turned on the platform of the Whig party and was referred to by many as "his accidency".  The nation, however, was at peace.  A tide of American migration was sweeping the borders of the country in a westward direction.  The expansion of the Union was accomplished largely by peaceful means.  Jefferson had purchased the Louisiana territory from Napoleon in 1803 for $15 million or about 3 cents an acre (see earlier post,  Lewis and Clark were dispatched to explore the continent to the Pacific Ocean and the settlers followed.  Florida was purchased from Spain in 1819.  In late February of 1844 Abel Upshur, Tyler's Secretary of state, had just negotiated a deal to grow the country further by bringing the Republic of Texas into the Union.

On February 28, 1844 a VIP party of American politicians was brought on board the USS Princeton which was then the most innovative ship in the US Navy.  President Tyler, a widower at the time, was on board.

Amy Greenberg, Professor of History
and Women's studies, Penn State University 
Historian Amy Greenberg writes, "The wealthy and powerful in Washington were off to a party.  Senators, members of the cabinet, and assorted other luminaries lucky enough to receive one of the formal invitations on thick card stock gathered at Bradley's Wharf 'precisely at 11 O'Clock' for a cruise of the Potomac aboard the new steam frigate Princeton, the 'pride of the navy.'  Tyler and Upshur were there with ample reason to celebrate.  The afternoon promised both entertainment and relaxation.  The guests would have the great good fortune to witness a demonstration of the world's largest naval gun, nicknamed 'Peacemaker,' and a lavish banquet belowdecks would cap the festivities.

USS Princeton
Both the Princeton and its canon represented the fulfillment of a personal crusade on Upshur's part to strengthen the U.S. Navy, which had been perennially underfunded and long the subject of mockery.  The Princeton and 'Peacemaker' offered evidence that the scientific and financial resources poured into the navy had paid off.  These technological marvels surely offered proof that the U.S. Navy was more than prepared to face Mexico, or even England if need be, in battle.  As the flag-festooned vessel steamed along at a brisk pace through the abundant ice floes, the secretary of state must have felt a special pride.

Spirits among the passengers were high, and the champagne flowed freely.  When the captain fired off 'Peacemaker', the cheers of the well-dressed crowd were universal and enthusiastic.  They headed belowdecks for an elaborate feast, appetites stoked by the display of American militarism.  As the sun began to set, the Princeton turned toward her anchorage.  With Mount Vernon, George Washington's historic estate, in view, Thomas Gilmer, a rising political state who had been secretary of the navy for just ten days, called on the captain for one final canon discharge in honor of the nation's first president.

Most of the guests were still belowdecks and felt little concern when they heard a loud explosion.  But as billowing smoke filled the cabin, and shouts and screams echoed from above, it became obvious that something had gone terribly wrong.  'Peacemaker' had exploded, instantly killing Upshur and eight other men, including Henry the slave who dressed President Tyler each morning; Thomas Gilmer, the new secretary of the navy; and David Gardiner, a former state senator from New York.  Dozens of others were injured, including one of the nation's leading expansionists, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, whose right eardrum was shattered.

John J. Hardin, an up and coming thirty-four year old congressman from Illinois was on deck when the gun burst.  His wife, Sarah, the mother of three young children, was fortunately still in the cabin.  'The horrors of that scene are still before me," he wrote to a friend a week later.  'The ghastly countenances of the dead, the shattered limbs, the gashes in the wounded and their mournful moanings, can neither be described or imagined.  Yet sadder and more piercing to the breast than this were the wailings and shrieks of agony of the wives of those who were killed.'

President Tyler survived.  At the time of the explosion the widowed president was belowdecks flirting with Gardiner's twenty-four year old daughter Julia, a New York belle less than half his age.  Tyler proved instrumental in helping Julia overcome the grief of losing her father and Julia lessened the president's distress over the 'awful and lamentable  catastrophe' that was in fact the worst tragedy ever to befall a presidential cabinet.  Two months later the couple was engaged."

Source: A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico, Amy S. Greenberg, 2012,

Commander Kelly concludes, "In one day in 1844 a department of the United States government, the U.S. Navy, managed to inflict more damage on the United States than Al Qaeda caused in a decade after 9/11".

You can now purchase Commander Kelly's 
first book, America Invades or on

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