- Historic Sites
“the Beauty And Chivalry Of The United States Assembled …”
… aboard the Navy’s experimental new warship: the President, his lovely fiancée, members of the Cabinet, and most official Washington. The Captain pulled the landyard …
December 1965 | Volume 17, Issue 1
By three o’clock the first part of the “sumptuous collation” was over; the three hundred guests had put away in good order all of Stockton’s roast birds and hams, and the customary round of toasting began. Stockton led off, of course, with a toast to the President. Then Tyler took over, toasting Stockton, the Oregon, the Peacemaker. Ericsson’s name was never mentioned. As more experienced and grandiloquent speakers proposed toast after toast after toast, the party’s natural gaiety turned to unbounded exuberance. Guests with low tolerances for alcohol and sailing began to filter away to other parts of the ship. Some with greater capacities, including the President’s son-in-law, William Waller, began to sing. The singing, combined with the playing of the band overhead, overpowered the toast-making orators, but by now no one really cared anyway.
The Princeton had gone about for her return journey, and just about four o’clock was passing Mount Vernon again. An officer whispered to Stockton that one of the guests would like to see the Peacemaker fired once more before the ship reached anchorage. The Captain at first declined, until he learned that the request had come from the Secretary of the Navy. Stockton got up to go on deck; most of the party, including the President, stayed behind—too involved in William Waller’s singing or Julia Gardiner’s flirting to notice, or too far gone in wine to move.
The gun crew loaded the Peacemaker with a light charge, twenty-five pounds of powder, and Stockton took position to fire the piece himself. The audience was much smaller than it had been earlier—Secretary and Mrs. Gilmer; Secretary Upshur; Senator Benton; Senator Samuel Phelps of Vermont with a lady friend; Virgil Maxcy, the former chargé d’affaires in Belgium; David Gardiner; and a handful of others.
Stockton pulled the lanyard to trigger the gun’s lock, and the whole ship shook with the force of a great explosion; even the revellers in the main cabin felt it. A thick cloud of white smoke rolled over the vessel, and from it came a few low moans, nothing else. As the smoke cleared, a scene almost beyond comprehension greeted the eyes of the onlookers: The Peacemaker had burst apart along its left side, shattering into flying fragments several thousand pounds of iron from the mounting trunnions backward. Stockton lay on the deck, luckily only stunned, with a big piece of metal lying on his chest. Two sailors lifted it away and hauled their bloody and shaken captain erect. He surveyed the terrific carnage at his feet.
The Secretary of the Navy was dead; a piece of metal had evidently killed him instantly and then gone on to hit Secretary of State Upshur, who had been standing directly behind him. Upshur, struck in the head, died before medical aid could reach him. Mrs. Gilmer, who throughout the day had never lost her feeling of foreboding, was miraculously unhurt, but now gave way to uncontrollable hysterics. Along with Gilmer and Upshur, everyone standing to the left of the Peacemaker had been literally mowed down by the hail of shattered iron. Virgil Maxcy had lost both arms and a leg and died instantly. David Gardiner and Commodore Beverly Kennon, Chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Construction, lay unconscious, mortally wounded. The ship’s surgeons could do nothing for either of them.
Senator Benton, seated on another gun about six feet away from the Peacemaker, saw the cannon fire, felt a blast in the face, and knew nothing more until he woke up, suffering from shock and a burst ear drum, a few minutes later. President Tyler’s personal servant of many years had been standing next to Benton. He was dead, as were two sailors in the gun crew. Nine others were wounded, some critically.
As for the President, he had at the last moment decided not to go up to see the gun fired. He and the Gardiner family, except for the Senator, were still in the main cabin listening to songs and toasts when a smoke-blackened officer burst in looking for the ship’s surgeons. Julia Gardiner immediately tried to go to find her father, but was kept from going on deck by someone who told her the grim news. She fainted.
The roster of lesser wounds and narrow escapes included just about everyone near the gun. After the initial shock, Stockton, injured though he was, began getting everything under control.
Undamaged except for her bow bulwarks, which had been blown out, the Princeton steamed at full speed for Alexandria while the surgeons patched up those they could and the crew laid the dead on mattresses and shrouded them with flags. Except for the immediate families of the casualties, Stockton kept his guests in the cabin. The excursion that had begun so gaily ended with sobs, hushed commiserations, and hysterics.
The Princeton was anchored by four thirty, and the steamer I. Johnson came alongside to take off the shaken and by now stone-sober survivors. The President himself carried off Julia Gardiner, still unconscious, and then returned to the Princeton . Stockton sent for more physicians and medical supplies, and the wounded stayed on board till early evening.