By 1843, when he approached the Navy for permission to build Princeton, its first steam-powered man-of-war, Robert Field Stockton had already distinguished himself as a U.S. Navy officer in the War of 1812, as a key negotiator in the establishment of Liberia, and as an aggressive pirate hunter.
After 16 years at sea, Stockton used an extended shore leave in his home state of New Jersey to study naval construction and gunnery. He approached the Navy with his proposal for Princeton, arguing that the United States had fallen behind European navies in steam technology. He was granted permission to move forward with his plans, although the new ship’s construction needed to be supplemented out of Stockton’s own family fortune when costs exceeded the Navy’s designated budget. Princeton was commissioned on September 9, 1843, with Captain Stockton in command.
Swedish engineer and inventor John Ericsson worked with Stockton on the design and construction of Princeton and the ship’s two long guns, “Peacemaker” and “Oregon”. Stockton oversaw the construction of Peacemaker in the United States, and Ericsson oversaw the construction of Oregon in England.
Princeton’s initial sea trial was a successful round-trip cruise from Philadelphia to New York from October 17-20, 1843, after which Stockton reported, “Princeton will be ready for sea in a week.”
Princeton received Peacemaker and Oregon in New York in January 1844, and sailed for Washington, DC, later in the same month.
On February 5, Stockton reported to the Secretary of the Navy that “the Princeton is a ‘full-rigged ship,’ of great speed and power, able to perform any service that can be expected from a ship-of-war…. The Princeton is armed with two long 225-pound wrought-iron guns and twelve 42-pound carronades, all of which may be used at once on either side of the ship. She can consequently throw a greater weight of metal at one broadside than most frigates. The big guns of Princeton can be fired with an effect terrific and almost incredible, and with a certainty heretofore unknown.”
Stockton invited members of the U.S. House of Representatives on Princeton’s first Potomac cruise on February 20. The New York Herald reported on the event: “The utter astonishment and amazement which she created among the inhabitants upon the banks of the river is not easily conceived, as they beheld this fairy phantom-ship, without a patch of sail set upon her spars, or a living soul upon her decks, —without the slightest evidence of steam, fire, light, or life, on board, still plowing her onward way through the immense thickness of ice, ripping, tearing, breaking, crushing it with irresistible power….”
The Herald article concluded, “…and tomorrow the President and suite—a private party—will visit the Princeton. It will be a select party, but I think you will get a report of it.”
The “private party” for the second Potomac cruise and gun demonstration included the cream of Washington politics: President John Tyler; Tyler’s fiancée and future first lady, Julia Gardiner; Miss Gardiner’s father, Representative David Gardiner of New York; Secretary of State Able P. Upshur; Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer; Captain Beverly Kennon, chief of the Bureau of Construction, Equipment, and Repairs; Representative Virgil Maxey of Maryland; and 76-year-old former first lady, Dolley Madison. Stockton’s biography describes the guest list as “…the President, Cabinet, and a large number of members of Congress, and distinguished strangers in Washington....”
On February 28, 1844, the “experimental excursion” started down the Potomac. Stockton’s biography, A Sketch of the Life of Commodore Robert F. Stockton, describes the events of the day: “During her progress down the Potomac, the great guns on the Princeton had been again and again discharged until public curiosity appeared to be satiated. The company had returned below, and at the festive board the voice of hilarity resounded through the decks of the proud ship. Toasts were given appropriate to the occasion, and all went merry as the sound of marriage-bells.”
At some point during the celebration, Stockton was approached with a request for another firing of Peacemaker. Although his biography recounts that he at first refused, he was informed that the request came directly from Secretary of the Navy Gilmer, so Stockton took the request as a direct order.
Stockton himself fired Peacemaker. “He placed himself on the breech of the gun, aimed, and fired. Feeling a sensible shock, stunned and enveloped in a cloud of smoke, for an instant he could not account for his sensations. But, in a few seconds, as the smoke cleared, and the groans of the wounded and the shrieks of the bystanders who were unhurt resounded over the decks, the terrible catastrophe which had happened was revealed.”
The explosion of Peacemaker resulted in the deaths of Secretary of State Upshur, Secretary of the Navy Gilmer, Captain Kennon, Maryland Representative Maxey, New York Representative David Gardiner, as well as a servant of President Tyler. Twenty people were injured in the explosion, including Stockton.
A naval court of inquiry was quickly convened. The court focused strongly on Stockton’s choice to construct Peacemaker in the United States out of domestic iron, as opposed to Ericsson’s decision to produce Oregon in England using European iron. The official report of the court, released on March 6, exonerated Stockton and his crew from any wrongdoing. Despite the dismissal, Stockton and Ericsson developed a strained relationship after the disastrous event and investigation. Stockton refused to pay Ericsson’s bill of over $15,000 for his services and for related patents. A United States court finally approved a payment to Ericsson of almost $14,000 of the unpaid debt in 1857, but there is no record that Ericsson ever received any payment. John Ericsson would later achieve celebrity during the Civil War as the design engineer of the Union ironclad vessel Monitor.
Shortly after the disaster on the Potomac, Captain Stockton was selected by President Tyler to deliver the annexation resolutions to the government of Texas, and he sailed for Galveston aboard Princeton to complete his mission.