- 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
The next day the dead were carried from the ship to the East Room of the White House, there to lie in state until Saturday, March 2, when a funeral, rivalling that of President Harrison three years before, was held in the Capitol.∗ With one narrow escape already to their credit, President Tyler and his son John, Jr., had another on their return from the funeral. The horses pulling their carriage suddenly panicked and ran headlong up Pennsylvania Avenue, fortunately not hitting anything, till a pedestrian stopped them.
Tyler quickly appointed two new Cabinet members; the times were too critical for major posts to remain vacant for long. John Y. Mason of Virginia, an old personal friend and one of Tyler’s few political allies, became Secretary of the Navy. Under pressure from Senator Henry A. Wise of Virginia, the President appointed John C. Calhoun as Secretary of State.
Four days after the funeral the new Navy Secretary convened a board of inquiry to investigate the Princeton disaster. Stockton, who had been remarkably steady and thoughtful in adversity, again became his old self, out to save his own skin by flaying Ericsson. Ericsson, back in New York, had already learned of the explosion, though from newspapers, not Stockton. The Captain now had the temerity to ask him to come and testify to the sterling qualities of the Peacemaker. Ericsson, who had not been invited to the Great Western race, or to the ill-fated festivities in the capital, would have none of it. He refused even to go to Washington, much less testify to the merits of a gun he had already condemned.
Stockton, nevertheless, defended the gun with his usual fluency, and with other witnesses lined up to applaud his conduct after the explosion, he came out of the inquiry unscathed. The board not only acquitted him and his subordinates as “gallant and welltrained officers” who had been in positions of maximum danger every time the Peacemaker had been fired, but assessed no specific cause and assigned no individual responsibility for the accident. It was simply chalked up to the well-known vagaries of iron cannon.
The remains of the Peacemaker went to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia for close study, and the Institute’s report proved Ericsson right: the Peacemaker was not only too light for its bore size without additional reinforcement, but it was also made of an iron somewhat lighter in specific gravity than the standard—in short, either defective metal or insufficient forging was probably partially responsible for the disaster. There was a good deal of speculation, but no one ever definitely established why the gun burst when it did, with a reduced powder charge and after previous successful firing.
The Stockton-Ericsson relationship was finished; both men harbored a bitterness which lasted to the end of their days. Throughout the rest of his career in the Navy and even afterward, Stockton never forgot what he considered Ericsson’s betrayal during the Peacemaker inquiry. Refused even passing credit, much less praise, Ericsson had given the government the free use of his patents in the Princeton , but never set foot aboard her. Largely because of Stockton’s continued efforts, he never saw a dollar in salary for his work in designing the ship, or any payment for his new and unpatented developments. He vowed never again to offer his services to the Navy Department, a promise which, fortunately, he did not keep for long. Even the later success of the Monitor , though it finally brought him the fame he had sought for decades, hardly improved his attitude toward the ever-ungrateful Navy.
Still treating the repaired Princeton as his personal yacht, Stockton carried to Galveston Congress’ resolution annexing Texas. After the Mexican War broke out, the ship served, under another skipper, in the Gulf of Mexico. At war’s end, with Stockton once more in command, she embarked on a grand tour of Europe, where government officials and huge crowds greeted her in every port with the same adulation she had received in America five years earlier.
At home, though, the Princeton never regained the sparkling and ghostly presence that had awed public and government alike. She was, in fact, considered a jinxed ship by the Navy Department, which was still wary of innovations and distrustful of the Princeton in particular.
Soon after his return from the triumphal European tour, Stockton resigned from the Navy and went home to New Jersey to run (successfully) for Congress. Once his sustaining presence had departed her decks for good, the Princeton was doomed. Without ever having appreciated or even understood, really, what a wondrous ship it had possessed, the Navy quickly decommissioned, broke up, and ignominiously scrapped the vessel that had ushered in the age of steam-driven iron navies.