“the Beauty And Chivalry Of The United States Assembled …”

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Ever since his days in Sweden, John Ericsson had been intrigued by artillery, and by the challenge of overcoming the limitations, then severe, on casting and forging large iron guns without inevitable and often dangerous—but invisible—flaws and stresses.

In England Ericsson had tried a novel and different approach, forging a huge gun with a tube of minimum thickness and then reinforcing the barrel on the outside with bands of hammered wrought iron. With its 12-inch bore, Ericsson’s cannon was perhaps the biggest naval gun that had ever been made—thirteen feet long, it weighed 16,000 pounds—and it came with him to New York. Set up at a naval testing ground at Sandy Hook, the gun fired hundreds of 225-pound balls; a crack developed in the breech, but after further strengthening the weapon was as efficient as before.

Named the “Oregon,” Ericsson’s gun was mounted on the Princeton ’s foredeck, and Stockton decided he’d like another to match. Ericsson warned him of the technical understanding, experience, and controls that he considered essential in the tricky business of gunmaking; Stockton ignored the information. He was on increasingly antagonistic terms with the inventor, and he had no knowledge of casting or forging. Nevertheless, he plunged ahead on his own. At the Hamersley Foundry in Philadelphia he forged a 12-inch gun that was fourteen feet long, a foot thicker at the breech than the Oregon, and half again as heavy: it weighed 25,000 pounds. The barrel had no reinforcing bands. After superficial trials the new cannon, which Stockton named the “Peacemaker,” joined the Oregon on the Princeton ’s foredeck.

On January 31, 1844, Stockton steamed out of New York Harbor to seek fresh accolades in Washington. As always, he left Ericsson behind.

On February 28, the day of Stockton’s long awaited grand “experimental excursion” for the President, boats shuttled back and forth all morning carrying the Captain’s guests to the Princeton . By noon nearly three hundred men and women jammed her decks and cabins. The weather could hardly have been better, and practically everyone who had been invited showed up. President Tyler; his fiancée, Julia Gardiner; her sister; and the President’s father-in-law-to-be, former New York State Senator David Gardiner, led the list. Washington’s queen dowager, Dolley Madison, was aboard. So was most of the Cabinet, including Abel P. Upshur, recently elevated to Secretary of State; the new Secretary of the Navy, Thomas W. Gilmer; Secretary of War William Wilkins; and the rest of the President’s official family. From the Senate and House came Thomas Hart Benton, John C. Calhoun, and a score of others. The military guests included practically every general and flag officer in Washington, and every departmental chief as well. The most important foreign diplomats, as well as judges, ex-congressmen, mayors, and a host of other notables, many accompanied by their wives and older children, completed the party. They were about to undertake an excursion that none would ever forget.

All was not completely joyous and carefree; in fact, there was a vague undercurrent of uneasiness which may have dampened the general gaiety. For one thing, news was quietly circulating—Thomas Hart Benton had gotten it on his way to the Princeton —that the famous Philadelphia financier Nicholas Biddle had died the previous evening. As president of the Second Bank of the United States he had been for years a familiar figure in Washington and many aboard the Princeton had known him. For another, the size of the deck guns awed the men and frightened the women. Mrs. Thomas Gilmer, though, seems to have been the only passenger with a real fear of impending doom. It was so strong that she actually asked her husband if they couldn’t go ashore. As Secretary of the Navy he could hardly agree.

Stockton weighed anchor about noon, and the Princeton steamed serenely down the calm Potomac.

Below Fort Washington, the Captain ordered the first demonstration of his Peacemaker. She was loaded with 40 pounds of powder and a 12-inch iron ball weighing 225 pounds. (The Oregon was not fired, nor had it been on the earlier excursion.) As the first shot was fired, the crowd gathered about the gun could clearly see the ball arch into the air, hit the water two miles away, and then skip along the surface for perhaps another mile till it was lost from sight. More shots were fired to demonstrate the precision of the gun crew and the ability of the gun and mounting to swivel in any direction. At maximum elevation, with its maximum charge—fifty pounds of powder—the huge cannon would throw a ball about four miles.

After three or four shots Stockton called a halt, and the guests retired below to attack the luncheon laid out in the main cabin. The Marine Band on the quarterdeck played marches, waltzes, and polkas.